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Crisis, disaster and trauma, Race, ethnicity and culture

‘It’s naïve to share your story and think that the government is not collecting that information from you’

Ayad Marhoon on seeking stories of oppression from Iraqis living in the UK.

22 March 2023

As a third-generation Iraqi living in the UK, I am well aware of the stories of my parents and grandparents, fleeing an oppressive dictatorship in Iraq which lasted over 20 years. Studying psychology sparked my interest in how living through this would have affected those who escaped to live a better life. Living and growing up in an Iraqi community in the UK, with hundreds of stories to be told, I set out to collect stories of the lives of people who fled mandatory conscription, instability and even persecution. I faced barriers from the very beginning.

I was not intending to uncover any explicit details in these stories. I just wanted to give the Iraqi community a chance to bring into the light the adversities they faced, and the atrocities that Saddam Hussein committed during his reign. Yet I was met with scepticism from the community about sharing their stories publicly. Why? I began looking to the research for answers.

Going through difficult experiences may challenge a person's identity (Pals, 2006). Although these experiences can contribute towards development and maturity, having to recall the difficult experiences may leave the individual feeling as though their identity is being attacked, and so it is best to avoid the conversation completely. Birren and Svensson (2006) also discussed the idea of letting go of difficult experiences in the past. After having lived through adversity, people may prefer to forget about it and move on.

There is also cultural and generational variation. For example, in the older Chinese community, people often feel that the audience who listens to the stories will not necessarily appreciate old stories as much as they will appreciate new ones (Chan & Lai, 2015). Yet living and growing up in the Iraqi community, I know that a lot of people in the community are not afraid to discuss their stories in a closed environment. Between friends and family, sharing and reminiscing stories of the past is almost a given when gathered in a group. So is the issue within the person, or the idea of the story being public?

My own research turned from asking people for their stories, to asking the same people why they wouldn't share their stories on a public platform.

Fear and focus

I uncovered apparent reasons, and more speculative reasons.

During Saddam Hussein's rule, voices were suppressed and people were fearful of the repercussions of sharing their opinions. Some lost their lives for speaking up against the regime: you would be hard pressed to find an Iraqi in the UK now who didn't lose a family member. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that it seems to be a mindset of the Iraqi people that people are not to be trusted until proven otherwise.

Fast forward 20 years and some have expressed to me that even if they are safe now in the UK, their story going public may put their relatives in Iraq in danger. It's not that life in Iraq is necessarily dangerous – but these concerns still exist.

Another fear for many is that sharing the stories publicly will allow for easier surveillance of them and their families by the British Government. This may sound somewhat conspiratorial but makes sense from the perspective of those who have risked so much to escape a life of surveillance. The stories they share publicly will undoubtedly differ to the statements that they provided upon arrival to the country 30 years ago; people would say or do what they felt was required to be granted asylum away from the persecution that they were facing in Iraq. Some fear the consequences if their stories now are found to be different. Especially now with a majority of Iraqis being Muslim, and a lot of Muslim people's scepticism about the governments prevent agenda, Iraqis can feel like they're walking on eggshells.

Others have a somewhat disheartening reason for avoiding the formal collation of the stories: that there is simply no use in sharing the stories anymore. Some people would rather discuss the ways in which the country can be restored going forward, as opposed to making an effort to preserve the past. That's disheartening to me as a third-generation Iraqi living in the UK – the history of my family, community and country of origin is something I think is very important for me to know. It has the potential to inspire me and many other young people, and it would be a shame if those stories were lost.

The future

There are some who have expressed their desire to share their stories. They may say they wouldn't know where to start. They haven't necessarily had the opportunity to share things on a public platform, and they express their concerns that there are language and technology barriers. This is very promising for me – I could be the one to provide the platform.

In conducting interviews to gather these stories, I need to reassure the tellers that I will treat their stories confidentially and anonymously. Authors and filmmakers have had to face the same challenges when collecting information and I've been lucky enough to hear first-hand about the work that needs to be done before the conversations in building rapport with those who will trust you with their stories. Formally approaching people about 'doing research' is not nearly as effective as sharing a vision with them and making them aware of what an informal conversation with them can help to achieve. Despite the initial anonymity, my hope is that over time, a few brave individuals who are happy for their stories to be associated with them will convince others of the benefits of their stories being shared publicly, and the value those stories can have for listeners when they are able to put a name or a face to them.

Unless these first-hand stories regarding life in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein are collated and spread, then all we're likely to learn is the objective history of the country. Yet there is value in hearing and sharing the subjective stories, and a great deal to be learnt from them. They hold the power to 'move individuals to thought, reflection, action and belief' (Stroud, 2008). Biographical narrative interviews provide a safe space where people are able to tell their stories in a confidential manner and receive some sort of healing through being able to share them in that context (Rosenthal, 2003). The storyteller can feel heard and appreciated. Sharing stories in order to foster conversation is linked to higher life satisfaction (Cappeliez, O'Rourke & Chaudhury, 2005). On a community level, storytelling is a way of teaching and spreading cultural sensitivity (Davidhizar & Lonser, 2003).

I've touched here on my own small-scale research with members of my local community, and I realise this could become a much bigger project. However, for such a project, even the word 'research' might deter people from contributing, and so maybe the whole premise for collecting the stories needs to be around a vision to inspire and improve the community. But time is of the essence: the morbid reality is that the opportunity to conduct such research is diminishing as time goes by. So let's seek to better understand people's apprehensions over sharing their stories, for future generations to learn from.

  • Ayad Marhoon is Psychology Masters graduate working as a project manager in Leeds with an interest in the third sector and the history of different cultures in the UK


Birren, J.E. & Svensson, C.M. (2006). Guided autobiography: Writing and telling the stories of lives. LLI Review1(1), 1-10.

Cappeliez, P., O'Rourke, N. & Chaudhury, H. (2005). Functions of reminiscence and mental health in later life. Aging & mental health, 9(4), 295-301.

Chan, E.A. & Lai, C.K. (2015). Understanding the reasons why Chinese older people do not wish to tell their life stories. Journal of advanced nursing, 71(7), 1661-1671.

Davidhizar, R. & Lonser, G. (2003). Storytelling as a teaching technique. Nurse educator, 28(5), 217-221.

Pals, J.L. (2006). Narrative identity processing of difficult life experiences: Pathways of personality development and positive self‐transformation in adulthood. Journal of personality, 74(4), 1079-1110.

Rosenthal, G. (2003). The healing effects of storytelling: On the conditions of curative storytelling in the context of research and counselling. Qualitative inquiry, 9(6), 915-933.

Stroud, S.R. (2008). Simulation, subjective knowledge, and the cognitive value of literary narrative. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 42(3), 19-41.