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Story Swap is an evening celebrating and sharing historic and contemporary stories of migration. A collaboration between the Department of History and Archaeology, Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, and Cheshire, Halton & Warrington Race and Equality Centre (CHAWREC), the event brought together 40 members of Chester’s immigrant and minority communities to learn about and reflect upon the many and varied experiences of making Cheshire a new home over the past one hundred years.

Black History Month, celebrated annually every October, reminds us to uncover, celebrate and share the rich histories of black and Asian communities. It reminds us to look more closely, to reappraise ‘accepted’ narratives about the past and to introduce and embrace new realms of experience. It reminds us to think again, to learn anew, to challenge, confront and relate.

This was a key objective for the small team of historians, archivists and community advocates who came together to devise ‘Story Swap’. In our early conversations, we talked about how we could use history to illuminate the experiences of contemporary immigrant and minority communities. We wanted to shine a light on the common threads which linked migrants past and present. How and why did they leave their country of origin? Which hurdles did they face as they journeyed? What did they feel upon arrival? What aspects of their ‘old’ life did they carry into their ‘new’ one? Did they, and do they feel a sense of belonging to Britain? Have they been made to feel welcome?

These are critical questions for historians and modern society alike. Understanding the complexity of the migrant experience – what it is to live between two worlds – can be a catalyst for empathy. It can prompt us all to recognise the commonality of what it is to be human, and what it is to overcome adversity. More importantly still, holding up a mirror to past episodes of prejudice and intolerance forces us all to re-evaluate our own attitudes in the present.

‘Story Swap’ therefore offered a unique opportunity to place the past alongside the present. We wanted to create a safe space for minority communities in Chester and the wider region to come together to listen to, and to share stories of migration. A precedent, of sorts, had already been set, by the ‘Journeys to Cheshire’ project. This collection of oral histories, compiled a decade ago, captured the rich and demographically diverse landscape of Cheshire in the twenty-first century. Life stories stretched to virtually every corner of the global and reached back as far as the 1940s. They offered earliest memories of places and cultures left behind, of the impetus for migration, of journeys made, first impressions shaped by the warmth of the welcome and the coolness of the weather. They told of jobs, homes and families, of personal challenges and personal triumphs, of hospitality and hostility, of struggles to ‘fit in’, of people and practices which made them feel that they ‘stood out’ – sometimes for all of the wrong reasons.

‘Story Swap’ offered an opportunity to revisit many of these accounts, and to bring them to a new audience. It also provided a forum to introduce lesser known or more temporarily distant histories: Jews travelling from the Russian Empire at the turn of the century, Belgian refugees during the First World War and colonial migration before the Empire Windrush.

It was, however, the chance to hear from people within the local community about their own experiences that was the most valuable part of this event. This brought home – sometimes in vivid and shocking detail - the complexities and difficulties of migration. People who had travelled to the country from Syria, South Africa, Hong Kong and France were just some of those who shared their stories and reflected on their journey to the UK. These participants recalled emotional departures, legal barriers which prohibited smooth arrivals, obstacles and intolerance which hindered efforts to settle in, and life-long challenges to reconcile the multiple identities that are born out of being a migrant, or the children of migrants. However, not all accounts were framed by difficulties. One of the topics to generate considerable comment, and a considerable amount of laughter, was the infamous British weather! It seems that, despite all else, the British climate often left the most lasting impression on new arrivals.

We were also fortunate that one of our recent History graduates, and current MA student, Olivia, joined us for this event. Having taken a module on Multiculturalism in her first year, followed by a third-year module which explored the routes of Jewish migration to Britain’s urban centres, Olivia was keen to attend so she could learn more about the experience of migrants in the contemporary world. “It’s interesting to hear the stories first-hand rather than through books and documentaries”, Olivia commented. ‘Story Swap’ helped to make the migrant experience “more real and validates what I’ve been taught”. Importantly, as Olivia told us afterwards, it also brought her to the realisation that migration and integration presents an enormous challenge and ongoing struggle for many in modern Britain. Olivia, who classifies herself as a second-generation migrant, saw parallels between the experiences of her own family and those shared, frankly and honestly, by others during the event. For her, ‘Story Swap’ was both cathartic and a call to action, giving her “inspiration” to consider how she might take forward research into questions of historic migration for her MA dissertation.

So, what can we take away from this event? In a space created for mutual learning and mutual reflection, what has it taught us? For historians working in the field of black and minority history, BHM is bound to bring a new urgency and poignancy to our research; this much we know. For the month of October, what we do day in, day out, is elevated by an awareness that the public is looking in, and looking on, searching for ‘relatable’ stories that carry ‘meaning’. ‘Story Swap’ took away that burden of having to ‘prove’ worth and meaning. Instead, it served as a forum for nurturing ‘relatable’ stories that carried meaning by dint of their very authenticity. These stories all ‘mean’ something because they reflect ‘real life’, real experiences, real moments of adversity and real, personal triumphs. This ‘Story Swap’s’ most valuable lesson; by creating a space for storytelling, history lifts off the page and comes alive. ‘Story Swap’ is a forum which has enabled us to do this, not for its own sake, or for BHM, but for those people who know what it was – and what it is – to be a migrant.

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