Teresa Norman and Sinéad Mangan-Mc Hale from TogetherintheUK have collaborated with Victorina Press to produce Hear our Stories, an anthology of migrant writings, which launches on August 31st. We asked them to tell us a little more about TogetherintheUK and about their experiences of working on the book.
Teresa, where did the idea first come from to set up TGIUK – was it a lightbulb moment, or did the concept develop over a period of time?
Teresa: I was supporting a family who had migrated to the UK, so that helped me understand what it took to create a life in a new country. The actual idea was a lightbulb moment. I was working in government, and I attended a seminar on behavioural insights where one of the key messages was ‘that you learn most from people with similar lived experiences’. The idea of setting up a website to tell migrant stories bubbled in my mind between 2010 and 2015. During that time, I discussed the idea with Johann Taljaard and we developed the initial concept together. In 2015, I left the Civil Service, and I then had time to start making it happen. In the same year I met Kosta Elefetheriadis and Fatkma Bermeo Mustafa, who became co-founders with myself and Johann, and together, the four of us brought it to life.
Sinéad, what attracted you to TogetherintheUK and made you want to contribute to it?
Sinéad: I returned to the UK in January 2021, having spent most of my adult life as a migrant working in the UK, Europe and the Middle East. When we first moved to the UK in the 1980s, there was a lot of discrimination against the Irish. I faced some difficult situations and difficult people because of my nationality. So, fast forward twenty years, and back in the UK, I wanted to help others who face similar or worse situations because of their nationality, religion or status. I also wanted to use my corporate writing and strategic planning skills to good use, so when I saw TGIUK was looking for a writer and I understood their mission and values, I felt it was a good fit. And luckily, so did TGIUK!
TGIUK was set up in 2015 with a simple aim – to share stories from migrants about living in the UK. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength. Could you tell us a little about the way your focus has expanded and changed over the last eight years?
Teresa: Our core purpose of telling migration stories has always been at the heart of what we do. We started as a blog and then moved to a website. We began with the idea of sharing stories and providing useful information. Over time, we realised that providing a platform for people to share their creativity was also very important. We also learned that connecting with other organisations and people focusing on migration was vital – if we want to meet people who have fascinating things to tell us, we need some introductions, so we have been building our network over time.
Teresa, you worked in the Civil Service for fifteen years, and I understand that when you left you wanted to do something which put you in direct contact with people “on the ground”. What were the biggest challenges for you personally? Were there things which you found more difficult – or easier – than you’d expected?
Teresa: I think the freedom was quite startling after fifteen years in the Civil Service – the realisation that I, or someone in the team, could have an idea and make it happen, that there were no presentations to the Executive Committee needed. This has been one of the great joys.
The challenges for me, personally, were getting to grips with principles of website design and how to achieve maximum impact on social media. Luckily, when we started, we found people who were willing to share their expertise and help us make it happen.
There is a broader challenge. As I have learnt more about the migration system, I have understood how much needs to change. However, we are not a campaigning organisation so we need to stick to our core purpose.
What has been wonderful is how much generosity and talent we have encountered. This is from all the volunteers who have worked with us over the years and from people who are well-known in the migration field who have shared their insights, spoken at events or welcomed us to their meetings.
Teresa, tell us about a typical day for you – what do you enjoy the most and the least about running TGIUK?
Teresa: I love the knowledge that I gain from the team, from each story and each encounter. In a day, I might be checking in with the different teams, looking for opportunities for us and making a project work. Of course, with a social enterprise, there is organisational detail that needs attention and I don’t mind this too much – not when I connect to what we are doing and achieving.
Hear Our Stories showcases personal prose and poetry charting the life journeys of UK migrants. Where did the idea come from for the anthology and what are you hoping to achieve for TogetherintheUK with this publication?
Teresa: A friend (Michele Bent) told me she had won second prize in a poetry competition organised by the Barbados High Commission and this inspired me to start a StoryTelling Competition for first and second generation migrants, run by TogetherintheUK. I also know that poetry is a great way of processing trauma and this can be very helpful to refugees. I wanted to provide a chance for their work to be recognised.
Regarding the bigger picture, I would like to think that the anthology will play a role in making the migration debate more compassionate and thoughtful. It shows the courage it takes to migrate and the difficulties people encounter. These are the human stories, not statistics. I also hope it will encourage more people to share their stories with us and make people more aware of what we do.
Sinéad, you have invested a huge amount of time on the anthology – what motivated you? What do you hope it will achieve?
Sinéad: Having edited corporate magazines and coffee table books, I viewed it as any other client project, but once I started to read the beautiful and very personal pieces of writing, it became more than a project and rather a deep commitment to making this anthology the best I could, enabling the writers to reach a wider audience.
I genuinely hope that it will make every reader see that migrants and refugees are people who only want to live safely and free from any kind of abuse and to make a better life for themselves and their families. If you have never had to leave your home country and your family, it is hard to understand how heartbreaking it can be. It is not an easy journey, and as my mother always said, treat people as we would want to be treated.
Teresa, were you surprised by the wealth of stories and the abundance of talent amongst the UK migrants who submitted their work?
Teresa: No, not at all. I have attended migrant events such as Welcome Kitchen, where migrants have showcased their talents through performances etc. TogetherintheUK has occasionally held online poetry readings. So I knew there was a huge amount of talent out there. The issue was really getting our competition publicised so people thought of sending their work in. We worked really hard writing emails, going to meetings etc, so that people knew what we were up to.
The publisher, Victorina Press, believes very strongly in the principles of bibliodiversity. What does this mean to you both personally, and was it a factor in your decision to work with them to produce Hear Our Stories?
Teresa: Absolutely – diversity and inclusion are at the heart of what we do. We want to celebrate different cultures, different ways of living and to help us connect with each other. I love this quote from J S Mill:
“It is hardly possible to overrate the value . . . of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.”
He is telling us that if we are brave enough to connect across difference, life will be so much richer. Victorina Press know this and live it. I have been reading some of the wonderful books that they publish and my life is already richer through encountering the authors. I have for instance gained an insight from Come What May about what it is like living in Gaza. I am now reading The Secret Letters from X to A, which is making me think a lot about what it must be like to live in Iran.
Sinéad, what does bibliodiversity mean to you?
Sinéad: I love reading and often have several books on the go at any one time, ranging from what I call ‘bath book fiction’ to self-help, historical, or educational. I enjoy a mixture of writing and want to be able to have access to all writers from across the world and not just the well-known ‘blockbuster’ authors writing from a Western perspective.
Bibliodiversity in the world of writing and publishing means that I can have that balance; I can step into cultures across the world, read about lives different to mine, and learn about things I did not even know I didn’t know. I also like that it gives new writers the chance to share their work, as it can be hard to be heard by the larger well-known publishing houses whose focus may be more on the bottom line than the richness and diversity of their content.
Teresa, you are one of the editors of the anthology, along with Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes of Victorina Press – herself an immigrant – and Sinéad. I believe Sinéad is originally from Ireland but has lived and worked in Europe, the UK and the Middle East for over thirty years. It sounds like the perfect blend of experience and skills! Did you enjoy working together on the project?
Teresa: Consuelo has provided great leadership to us, helping us understand the publishing process, and the edits she makes are transformational.
Sinéad has professional editing experience, so she has brought so many brilliant ideas to the table as well as a phenomenal talent for accuracy.
I think I have brought some knowledge of the UK migration field and a sense of how I wanted the story told.
So we are a great team in that we all have something different to contribute.
Sinéad, what is your experience of working as a team with Consuelo and Teresa?
Sinéad: It has been a tremendous learning and fun experience. We come from different backgrounds and experiences, and it is those differences that have made us work so well together – each working to the others’ strengths and skills, listening to different opinions or suggestions, and giving insights based on our lived experiences, all of which I feel has added to the quality of our work. We are all strong, opinionated women who have used our skills and knowledge to make the anthology into a book that will touch the hearts and minds of its readers and help people understand the backstory of migrants and refugees who come to the UK.
Lastly, could you both tell us a little about what you enjoy doing in your spare time – if you have any?!
Teresa: I love the theatre. I love the immediacy of reacting to how a director has produced a play and what the actors bring to it. I also enjoy going to art exhibitions. I like how artists make you see the world differently. I am working hard at keeping fit.
Sinéad: Our children are in different countries, so I travel to see them as much as possible and spend many hours reading in airports and on planes, but I love finding books specific to those countries. And for the first time in thirty years, I live in the same country as my sister, so I enjoy spending time with her.
Thank you both for talking to Victorina Press today!
TogetherintheUK’s mission is two-fold: to provide an unbiased communications platform for migrants and refugees to safely share their stories while providing them with reliable advice and insights into life in the UK. You can find out more about them on their website: https://togetherintheuk.co.uk/
You can pre-order Hear Our Stories from the Victorina Press website – head over to our online shop!