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How Graphic Novels and Comic Books can Humanise Refugee Experiences

There is a trend of indirect representation of refugees and migrants in the media. More often than not, the media chooses to represent them as a mass and their individual voices are not included. This inadequacy of representation can create a dehumanising rhetoric which can further promote anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments. A whole genre of graphic novels have been trying to change that. Contrary to the detached watchdog form of journalism adopted by the mainstream media in 2015 and 2016 when they constantly covered the movement of migrants and refugees in Europe, this style of comic books attempts to responsibly present diverse migrant experiences and aspirations. According to literary critic, Hillary Chute, by pairing words and illustrations, artists are able to explain complex and traumatic stories that could not be conveyed in any other way.

Welcome To The New World is written by Jake Halpern and illustrated by Michael Sloan and was a result of a Pulitzer prize winning graphic story of a refugee family who fled the civil war in Syria to make a new life in America during Trump's era. Photo: Jake Halpern/Michael Sloan

From Don Brown's The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees to Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, comic books have become a powerful medium to portray not just the migration journey but also the long lasting effects of forced displacement on an individual and their family. For example: Bui documents the struggles faced by her family after their arrival in the United States from Vietnam in 1978. She also reflects on how the trauma of forced displacement be transferred to the next generation. These comic books also seek to foster empathy amongst the host population by making the readers resonate with the experiences of an individual refugee who is the protagonist of the comic book. In this way, they are able to give voice to 82.4 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes.

Constructing the Past through Details and Frames

These graphic novels draw upon the traditional format of comic strips. Consisting of panels, gutters and sometimes a splash, a full page illustration to denote a significant event in the story. Moreover, usage of a simple element like thought bubbles helps the readers get an insight into the inner feelings of that person when they were compelled to make several life altering decisions in a limited time period. These comic books are often made in collaboration with humanitarian organisations and practitioners working with displaced communities. “I am a leader of my house” is one such webcomic, which tells the story of two Rohingya refugee women living in Cox Bazar, Bangladesh. The webcomic is available for free and it depicts the everyday challenges faced by women in refugee camps, their aspirations for their future and expectations from their community. Hafsa’s traumatic memory of being forced to leave her father behind in Myanmar was depicted by Fahmida Azim’s illustration of the separation of two hands in the background of a dark ocean of uncertainty.

Photo: The New Humanitarian and PositiveNegatives/ Illustration by Fahmida Azim

Tool for Awareness and Empowerment

Some artists and organisations have conducted comic strip making workshops with refugees and migrants and later compiled their stories into a comic book. For example: American artist, Ali Fitzgerald’s Drawn To Berlin: Comic Workshops In Refugee Shelters And Other Stories From A New Europe captures post migration experiences of two of her students. World Comics India recently put together a comic book called Rendered Stateless, Not Voiceless which consists of stories written and sketched by Rohingya refugees, based in India.

Women reading from Rendered Stateless Not Voiceless. Photo: Indian Express

The element of anonymity in comic books allows refugees and migrants to openly share their stories. According to Poppy Ogier, it is a game changer for people who want to speak out but are scared of the consequences for themselves and their families.They are able to sensitively encapsulate pre-migration, migration and post migration experiences. Therefore, these comic books are a great medium to humanise refugee narratives.


About the Author

Navya is an undergraduate student of Political Science. She has volunteered with several organisations which work with forced migrants in New Delhi. Recently, she developed a comic book which seeks to humanise refugee narratives in India and spread awareness about the importance of human rights. She is also the Blog Manager at Conversation Over Borders.


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