Amgueddfa Blog

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

لو  كنتُ في سجن حقيقي.. وكان هناك خمسون سجين سيكون عندي مالايقل عن خمسة أصدقاء… ولكن أنظري الى حالتي هنا… لايوجد أحد حولي…

If I was in a real prison… say there are fifty prisoners in one room, you would at least make friends with five of them… But here, look at my situation. There is no one around.

Salih, Cardiff, 2020

Towards the end of 2019, I began working as a Research Associate at the AHRC funded project “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence”. The project is a partnership between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Its aim is to record the stories of refugees in Wales, inform Welsh government of what we’ve learnt from them, and archive them as part of the national collections. My role is to record interviews with Syrian refugees who have settled in Wales since 2011.

I am an Arabic-speaking Iraqi and new to Wales myself, so my first challenge was finding willing participants from the Syrian community. Once I had been introduced via a gatekeeper, I started meeting potential participants to gain their trust and confidence and to explain the project further. Establishing a relationship of trust with people whose lives have been in turmoil is not straightforward. My days were ebbing and flowing between positive and negative responses, encouraging and disappointing reactions, scheduling and rescheduling of appointments, rejections and last-minute cancellations. I succeeded in completing my first interviews in February 2020 and had others planned. Then came the COVID-19 lockdown on 23rd March. 

When it became obvious that this situation would last some time, we decided reluctantly to experiment with remote interviewing. One of our team, Beth Thomas, is an OHS trainer who advised us, after discussion with her colleagues, on the options available. Our choice of method was decided on the following principle: that it should be as simple and secure as possible for the interviewees. We used a mobile phone connected to one channel of a Zoom H5 recorder, with the other channel recording the interviewer via a clip-on mike.

It seemed straightforward. Nevertheless, I struggled with the number of wired connections. I experimented with family and friends.  I wondered what kind of interview it would be if I was unable to see my participants. I also wondered how my interviewees would feel about not seeing me. How could I expect the participants to be at ease telling their life stories to someone they are unable to see?

The other option was to connect the Zoom H5 in the same way to the audio output of a computer, to record the audio only of a Zoom video interview. This made more sense to me as it would enable me and the interviewees to see one another. However, most of my participants were unhappy with this option because they either didn’t have a computer, had no access to Zoom, or they had problems with WiFi. 

It quickly became clear that almost all my participants were happier using WhatsApp on their smartphones, as this was how they normally connected with their families overseas. WhatsApp allowed us to conduct video interviews while recording audio locally on the Zoom H5, using the same setup as before. The only drawback was bandwidth and WiFi reception. I had some remote WhatsApp interviews which went well, with reasonable sound quality, and a disastrous one because I was unaware of how bad the WiFi was at the interviewee’s end. Other challenges ranged from dealing with the noise of children at the interviewee’s house, street noise, postmen and deliveries at my door or their door, my next-door neighbour’s loud music and my smoke alarm going off whenever my daughter burnt her eggs! 

In some ways, the pandemic strangely helped strengthen my relationship with interviewees. I have even developed strong bonds with some of my participants which transcended social distancing rules and highlighted our common vulnerability as human beings. They were more than mere research subjects but persons who need to be listened to and be supported in a very difficult stage of their resettlement. However, that involvement occasionally made it difficult to draw the line between supporting others and protecting yourself.

Salih was introduced to me as a Syrian refugee who met my requirements for project participants. All I knew about Salih was that he was a Syrian-Kurd who was resettled in Cardiff a few months before the first lockdown. I introduced myself over the phone and asked if he was interested in an initial remote meeting. Salih interrupted me saying: “I wish you could visit me and my wife in our house. I am in a wheelchair and my wife has some health problems. We only have one person who comes to check on us and brings us groceries… When our Home Office Caseworker comes for a visit, he talks to us through the living room window, hands us documents to sign, asks a couple of questions and leaves… We barely talk to people.” He became very emotional and asked me to help him reunite with the rest of his family who had been relocated in Germany. I explained to Salih that I was a researcher with no hand in policy making. Despite this, he was determined to be part of the project and have his voice heard.  

The phone call upset me. My inability to improve his situation made me ashamed of asking someone like Salih, who was painfully lonely, to narrate his personal story of suffering and survival remotely. Next morning, I called Salih and asked if he and his wife were happy for me to visit them wearing a facemask and maintaining social distance. We agreed to meet the following day. 

After taking all the necessary precautions; wipes, a facemask, Covid-19 declaration forms etc. I went to Salih’s house.  Salih opened the door while leaning on his walking frames. He greeted me in his Arabic-Kurdish accent and led me into a dark first -floor flat, with one small window being their opening to the outside world. Salih’s wife sat on a small mattress on the floor. She had hardly any Arabic but could understand some of what I was saying as I saw her nodding at times. She made us a tasty Syrian coffee and uttered few words in Kurdish which Salih translated to me as: “I am so pleased to have a guest for whom I can offer coffee again as I used to!”

It was a short, emotional and tiring interview. I have kept in touch with them and have promised to revisit once lockdown is lifted. But I feel heavily burdened with helplessness, sorrow, and anger at their situation. 

We are talking through virtual windows, barely touching the lives of those beyond the pane.

Radhika Mohanram

I can trace the origin of this project, Refugee Wales, to 2009 when the civil war in Sri Lanka came to a bloody end when the government forces defeated the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).  The stories of the immense suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamil civilians flooded the media and, then, these stories disappeared.  Being an Indian Tamil myself, I followed the news of the final days of the civil war obsessively as these were narratives of my “cousins” in South Asia, and we were linked by language, culture, religion, food habits, mythology, families, and  with a commonality of memories and practices.  It is estimated that between 100,000-200,000 Sri Lankan Tamils live in the UK, with a large number of them arriving as refugees from 1983 onwards.  The civil war in Sri Lanka lasted, off and on, for over 5 decades and Sri Lankan refugees who arrived in this country have lived here for more  than 2 generations.  

No sooner had the Sri Lankan civil war ended, then the Syrian civil war began in 2011 and it is still ongoing. The war has currently resulted in over 13 million Syrians who have been either internally displaced within Syria, or in neighbouring countries, or in Europe and the rest of the world.  Germany has over 800,000 Syrian refugees and the UK, a paltry 18,000-20,000 of them in 2021. The body count of Syrians who have died in this exodus is still not fully accounted for and the bottom of the Mediterranean sea, which is considered to be the deadliest migration route for refugees, has become a graveyard for them.  

Neither the Sri Lankan Tamil nor the Syrian refugees sought refuge in the UK so they could shop in Tesco and take jobs away from the locals.  They left their countries under desperate circumstances—the daily bombings, the kidnapping of children (and youth) by rebel soldiers forcing them into becoming child soldiers, the rape of women and children, the loss of jobs, homes, family members—spouses, children, parents, siblings--the lack of food, safety, and a full night’s sleep; it was the precarity of life.  

In Homo Sacer, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben points to the distinction made by the Ancient Greeks between bios (the form or manner in which life is lived and which assesses the richness of life) and zoë (the biological fact of life) and suggests that in contemporary life that distinction has collapsed.  So, life now only means bare life, zoë.  The biological fact of life with all its potentialities and possibilities has been erased.  For the French philosopher Michel Foucault, modern power is about “fostering life or disallowing it.”  This is how civilian populations in Sri Lanka and Syria were perceived by their governments—a full life disallowed for some of its citizens so that they are reduced to a bare life, their only possibility being to flee.  This is how refugees are perceived in the current political climate with hostile environment policies, to be seen as only deserving of a bare life, to show how unwelcome they are.  

If by moving away from their country results in a total and complete break from their past lives for the refugees, a rupture from their histories and cultures, what this project hopes to achieve is to allow refugees to connect their past to their present, give them a voice, and a sense of belonging and that people are, indeed, witnessing their trials.  The Museum with the richness of cultural life that it offers, through its resources, will assist in enabling refugees to become citizens of Wales, and help them to transform their lives in the country that is now their home; it will facilitate and contribute to them leading their lives into the fullest of its potentialities and possibilities.  

And those of us who already live in Wales, how will these newcomers change our lives? By hearing their stories, we, too, will reach further into our potentiality, of the richness of diversity, compassion, being good hosts and helping them go through their transformation and, in so doing, initiate new ways of being and becoming Welsh.

This week (8–13 June) is Carers Week, which aims to recognise the contribution that unpaid carers make to families and communities throughout the UK. Carers Trust estimates this that this unpaid care would cost £530 million per day across the UK, if it had to be provided by health and social care services.

Many carers face financial difficulties, social isolation, or poor health as a result of their caring role. During the pandemic the pressures on carers has increased as many of the services on which they rely, such as community/day centres or respite services, have been closed. In addition, the total number is estimated to have risen by 50% (Carers UK), meaning Wales may now have as many as 600,000 adult and young carers.

Amgueddfa Cymru conducted a survey towards the end of 2020 to ask carers what our museums could offer. You can find out more about why we we want to provide activities or events specifically for carers, how we think museums can help and what led to the survey, in this blog post from last year.

Responses came from both adult and young carers and were fairly consistent in the activities that people were most interested in:

  • craft/art activities that people could participate in,
  • social time with other carers, and
  • information or talks that would be useful to carers.

About two thirds of carers were interested in activities that they could attend on their own, and two thirds in activities they could attend with the person they care for. (One third of respondents were interested in both.) There was interest in both online and in-person events.

We designed a three-month trial of online carer day sessions which started in May this year. Each day, on the first Tuesday of the month, has two sessions: 2.30–3.30pm for all carers of any age, and 5–5.30pm for young carers under 26. If you are a carer and would like to attend one of the sessions on Tuesday 6 July you can book a free ticket here.

So far sessions have included:

  • drawing activities (no artistic talent needed),
  • why and how to create a playlist for someone you care for,
  • the experiences of the Amgueddfa Cymru Producers running LambCam, and
  • discussion about our Objects of Comfort initiative.

Objects of Comfort shares stories of what objects bring people solace and comfort, and the programme includes discussion sheets that carers can use with people they care for. Sometimes conversation can dry up or become repetitive if you’re with someone all the time; carers have reported how the sheets have led to some great out-of-the-ordinary discussions. You can find out more about OOC and the discussion sheets here.

We have also created and recruited for a new Support Volunteer role to help us in supporting carers and others in getting involved with Museum events, collections and activities. The volunteers who have applied have some great experience and skills and once their training is completed they will enable us to offer an even better welcome and range of activities for those who would benefit from extra support.

One aspect of the Carer Day sessions that has proved harder than we’d expected is letting people know that they are on. So many of the places where carers would normally spend time have been closed and the organisations who work to support carers have themselves been under much greater pressure during the pandemic. Even if you’re not a carer yourself, you probably know one of the 600,000 people in Wales who are – why not let them know about our Carer Days, and maybe ask if there’s anything you can do to help them during these difficult times? Thank you.

If you’d like to find out more about the Carer Days you can do so here.

If you’d like to tell us what you think about the carer days, even if you haven’t been able to attend one, you can complete an anonymous short survey here.

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and The Edina Trust would like to congratulate the thousands of pupils from across the UK who achieved Super Scientist recognition for their participation in the Spring Bulbs for Schools Investigation 2020-2021.

A big congratulations to you all. Thank you for working so hard planting, observing, measuring and recording, you really are Super Scientists!

Winners of the Spring Bulbs for Schools Investigation 2020-21

Runners up for the Spring Bulbs for Schools Investigation 2020-21

Highly Commended for their participation in the Spring Bulbs for Schools Investigation 2020-21

Schools recognised as Super Scientists for their participation in the Spring Bulbs for Schools Investigation 2020-21

Schools to be awarded certificates for their participation in the Spring Bulbs for Schools Investigation 2020-21

Thank you Bulb Buddies,

Professor Plant


A long time ago an ancestor lived in the Congo, let’s call him Ekeko.

Ekeko the Spirit Doll

Ekeko was much loved by his community and after his passing, skilled craftsmen made a spirit doll from solid iron to guard his memory.

We don’t know exactly how this spirit doll found its way to Wales. It’s a gap in knowledge that speaks of colonialization and empire. Many artefacts were taken from the Congo, and with them cultural memories were lost. We are keen to hear from anyone who may know more about this spirit doll.

Often when artefacts end up in museum collections they can no longer serve their intended purpose. In order to try and activate Ekeko we worked together with Cruse Bereavement Care, Playframe and the Hands on Heritage project, a youth-led project at Amgueddfa Cymru funded through the National Heritage Lottery Fund. We worked with Norbert Mbu-Mputu, a Congolese philosopher and poet who created this poem:

I am Ekeko

Welcome to my home

Here in the space of Bakulu I guard memories

and connect the world of the seen and the unseen

I carry memories from the past, the present and the future.


Bakulu - a Space for Memories

To re-activate Ekeko, we created a photoscan of the spirit doll and built a virtual space, a Bakulu; a space to guard memories of the ancestors. We worked with young people supported by Cruse Bereavement care to add memories to this space. During workshops we explored virtual reality spaces, shared memories and created visual representations, from photographs, from clay, from images found online. We placed these in the virtual space, where Ekeko smiles as memories from the past and present are carried into the future.

You can view the 360 video of the virtual memory space we co-created.


Some tech stuff:

What is a photoscan?

Photoscanning also known as photogrammetry uses triangulation to create 3-dimensional representations of real life objects from photographs. By taking photographs from different angles, so-called "lines of sight" can be developed and the surface of the object can be calculated and rebuilt digitally.

How can I view the video?

You can view the video in 2D on Youtube, or you can create a 3D experience using your smartphone, some cardboard and the YouTube mobile app.

  1. Assemble Google Cardboard.

  2. Open the Ekeko video on YouTube app.

  3. To start playback, tap the play button.

    Tap the Cardboard icon . The screen split will split into two smaller screens.

  5. Insert your phone into Cardboard.

  6. Look around to view the video in VR180 or 360 degrees.

How can I navigate the video?

The memories will move slowly with enough time to allow you to read their captions. You can simply let the video play or navigate by:

  • In 2D using your mouse (or fingers if you are using touch screen) to grab the video image and move it around, and zoom in and out to navigate.

  • In 3D you can move your head to look around in the space.

  • You can pause the video for a closer look. The navigation remains active even if you pause the video.


With thanks to our participants, and the memories they kindly donated.

Grief is a natural process, but it can be devastating. Cruse Bereavement Care offer support after the death of someone close.