Re-Act Refugee Storytelling Project – by Heather Yule

In 2022, as part of the SISF Community and Family Programme, The Stone Soup Collective project took place. It was a series of community events facilitated by a storyteller in partnership with a community hub in their local area. A ceilidh of stories, song, and dance with shared food, right in the heart of the community. Events took place across Scotland between 14 Oct – 30 Nov.

The Stone Soup is a European folk story in which strangers convince the people of a town to each share a small amount of their food in order to make a larger meal that everyone in the community can enjoy. 

At the heart of this story is a message of welcoming strangers, integration, kindness and sharing our resources to enable community strength and support; and that is exactly what storytellers managed to achieve with their events.

At the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, the public were invited to join members of the Re-Act Scotland’s Syrian Refugee community groups plus New Scots from Refuweegee charity in Glasgow for a celebration ceilidh blending Scottish and Syrian traditional songs, stories, and dances. Tasty treats from both cultures were available to try. A feast for all the senses and best of all it was completely FREE to take part.

Storytellers Heather Yule and Lesley O’Brien had been working with the groups over 4 sessions each to share stories and cultural interests. This culminated in the Stone Soup Ceilidh where musicians Grant McFarlane and Ron Jappy led with some music and dancing. The storytellers shared tales and members from all the groups shared poems and stories from their cultures. Syrian singer Midya Jan sang songs in Arabic, Kurdish and Armenian.

Heather Yule continues the story…

“I was very fortunate be involved in part of the Stone Soup project back in 2022 when I first had the opportunity to work with two groups of Syrian refugee women in the Craigmiller area of Edinburgh.   For me it was a completely new experience working with people from another culture and language through an interpreter.  I was excited about the challenge, but also a wee bit apprehensive.  Luckily, I remembered that Aberdeen based storyteller and SSF Board member Jackie Ross had been part of an online woman’s group throughout the Covid lockdown, and many of those participants were Syrian.  I contacted Jackie to get some advice and it was wonderful, and reassuring, to be able to speak to a colleague and hear her experiences.  That initial project culminated with a joyous ceilidh at the 2022 International Storytelling Festival which brought together refugee groups from Glasgow and Edinburgh.  It was a true celebration of Scottish and Syrian traditions with music, food, song, story and dance from both cultures.

Brilliantly, Storytelling Development Officer Joanne Urwin secured funding from EVOC (Edinburgh Voluntary Organisation’s Council) for an even larger project, which would build on the relationship I had created with the two groups of Syrian refugees in Edinburgh and add a new group of Afghan refugees recently settled In the city.  In this new endeavour storyteller Alice Fernbank has been brought in on the project to work alongside the Afghan women to help them share their voices and stories.

I was so pleased to part of this new project partnering with Re-Act Edinburgh as I felt that I was still only at the beginning of building a relationship with the Craigmiller groups.  The first of the groups is the ‘Mums and babies group’ and the second is made up of older woman and it is, delightfully, called the ‘Happiness Group’.  Most of the women have come to Scotland from the city of Homs, a few from Damascus and Aleppo and one or two from the far north of Syria near the border with Turkey.  The interpreter, who also organises and supports the groups is Sawsan (which is the Arabic for ‘Lily’).  Sawsan came to Edinburgh from Damascus about seven years ago with her artist/sculptor husband, though she grew up in Aleppo.  Sawsan’s English is superb and I find it very easy with her to move back and forth between English and Arabic.

It is quite tricky to try and summarise the vast array of fascinating subjects and material that we have been exploring over the past few months.  For me it has been an incredible opportunity to learn and to share.  In the sessions we have of course compared cultural differences, but discovered many, many more similarities between our two cultures.  The women are all trying at some level to learn English, but some are more confident about speaking than others.  Regardless of their level of English they are all exceedingly interested in the history, stories and customs of Scotland.  Therefore, taking inspiration for subject matters from the seasonal calendar has been a perfect starting point.  The theme of food is always reoccurring.  There are certain special dishes that are made for specific events and celebrations throughout the year and these recipes can differ from region to region.  We have had great fun with proverbs and sayings, and also riddles.  Both of our cultures have a love of playing with words.  The traditions of poetry and song in Syria both in style, and its influence within communities, is very comparable to our Gaelic traditions.  Stories and legends that feature mythical creatures, religious figures or creation fables, joke tales etc. will understandably be very different, but the folktales and ‘Jack tale’ style stories are the same, just slightly different versions.  For example, I found a story that was collected in Homs called ‘Lazy Shaban’ and it is a Syrian version of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’.  In this tale Shaban defeats an ifrit (a demon) rather than a giant, but it is the same story.  Occasionally one or two men will stay and join the Happiness Group and contribute a little.  At a session one of the men spoke about the storyteller in the coffee houses where the men used to gather.  The stories would usually be about the ancient heroes and the storyteller would involve his audience in such a way that they would be actively part of the story – often voicing different opinions about the characters in the story and how they should act.

The Syrian people love to socialise and are experts at celebrating and throwing fabulous parties.  I have seen lots of photos of wonderfully elaborate engagement parties and weddings and recently I was invited to a birthday party for one of the ‘babies’ from the Mums and Babies group.  It took place in a community hall in Craigmiller and only women and children were there.  The room was full and in that gathering most of the headscarfs disappeared and the women and young girls were beautifully dressed, quite glamorous in fact.  There was a great feast of delicious Syrian food and, of course, dancing!

I hope that gives you a wee glimpse into the progress of this project.  For me, I will always treasure the kindness they have shown by welcoming me so warmly into their circle and giving me the gift of their friendship.  The Happiness Group have invited me to go with them to the Blair Drummond Safari Park this coming Saturday! I can’t wait.”