Lost in Migration

Digitalizing Diaspora and Decolonizing Syrian Refugee Narratives


A Digital Humanities senior thesis for the English Department at the University of California, Los Angeles

Behind the Project

The image of the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian child who had drowned with his mother and brother minutes after boarding an overcrowded raft headed for Greece, devastated the world as it circulated social media in 2015.[1] It was an image that defined the Syrian Crisis for those who could not imagine the atrocities committed or the risks that individuals were willing to take to escape them. However, not all images of the crises evoked the same response. Around the same time, a selfie of a young Syrian woman stepping off her escape raft began circulating the internet with an added caption conveying skepticism: “Poverty stricken Syrian migrant takes selfie with her $600 smartphone.”[2] The contrasting receptions of the two images reflect how technology frames diaspora narratives and the way narratives produced in 21st century transnational movements converge and conflict.

Digital narratives about the Syrian refugee crisis represent a shift in the body of diaspora literature. While traditional printed works emerged out of the conflict, an unprecedented amount of digital narratives demonstrates a movement towards using internet technologies to convey refugee stories. Mobile devices have made the crisis one of the most self-documented in history and yet the most influential digital representations of Syria are those created by secondary institutions, organizations, and entities, often in the form of storytelling projects.[3] I argue that digital storytelling projects of the Syrian refugee crisis displace the self-representative works of refugees by remediating them into new narratives. While there is some scholarship criticizing depictions of the Syrian crisis in mainstream print and news media, digitally-born works have received little scrutiny. Rather, critics often applaud digital projects for humanizing the political through interactive, multimedia forms that engage audiences while also communicating first-person testimonies.[4] The few articles that examine digital storytelling projects only compare them to traditional news media forms (ex. photographs and text) without considering alternative forms of mediation that can be achieved through digitally-born works.[5] I argue that digitalizing the narratives of the Syrian diaspora creates two layers of liminality. The first layer is the migration narrative itself, the story of refugees crossing geographical, cultural, and political barriers to find asylum; the second layer, though, is a new type of liminality created by digital spaces in which narratives hybridize as they encounter alternative values, beliefs, and social constructs embedded within the structures of digital texts.

Digital storytelling projects of the Syrian crisis attempt to merge the expectations of the West with the experiences of the East, remediating self-representative digital works and re-entrenching Orientalist binaries. Combinations of videos, animated GIFs, images, virtual reality, and text are used to create multimedia webpages that convey refugee narratives, providing audiences with different entry points into the Syrian crisis. For example, professional portraits present human faces for audiences to associate with the refugee crisis; captions containing quotations give displayed bodies personal expression. The digital projects of the Syrian crisis interchange uses of immediacy and hypermediacy to facilitate their storytelling. Immediacy, the “erasure” of a medium’s presence, is created in moments when users are given “direct” contact with the refugee experience, such as through first-hand accounts, photographs, or virtual reality.[6] Hypermediacy, the awareness of a medium’s presence, is used to contextualize the immediate encounters, such as through informational footnotes, audio descriptions, or lines of commentary.[7]

By presenting “immediate” encounters with Syrian refugees and their experiences, the digital storytelling projects present themselves as bridges over the divides between East and West. However, the framing of interactive, hypermediated structures can reinforce Orientalist binaries in hybridized narratives. Digital storytelling efforts, with their invitation to interact with and remediate Syrian refugee narratives, can create a hyperreality that moves the audience from a position of witnessing to a position of inflicting colonial violence. This thesis underscores how reading practices that adapt to the liminality of digital space can be a method of decolonization. By using hypermediated reading to identify the hierarchical mediations that frame digital representations of the post-colonial Other, ethical design practices can also be adapted accordingly. 

To learn more about the digital ecology and mobile networks of the Syrian refugee crisis, click here

To read more about the critical theories that shape this thesis, click here

To read more about the methodology for this thesis, a reading practice called hypermediated reading, click here

To understand how the theoretical frameworks and hypermediated reading apply to digital narratives of the Syrian refugee crisis, click here

To consider where to go from this thesis, click here


[1] “How a Photo of a Drowned Syrian Boy Became the Defining Photograph of an Ongoing War,” 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time, Time, accessed May 25, 2018, http://100photos.time.com/photos/nilufer-demir-alan-kurdi.

[2] Bill O’Keefe (@thatbillokeefe), “Poverty Stricken Syrian Migrant Takes Selfie with Her $600 Smartphone.,” Tweet, September 5, 2015, https://twitter.com/thatbillokeefe/status/640216875163631616.

[3] Ivan Sigal, “Syria’s War May Be the Most Documented Ever. And yet, We Know so Little.,” Public Radio International, December 19, 2016, https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-12-19/syrias-war-may-be-most-documented-ever-and-yet-we-know-so-little.

[4] Nicole Aarssen, “Re-Orienting Refugee Representation? A Multimodal Analysis of Syrian Refugee Representation on the Social Media Platform Humans of New York,” Stream: Inspiring Critical Thought 9 (2017): 2.

[5] Ioana Literat, “Refugee Selfies and the (Self-)Representation of Disenfranchised Social Groups,” Media Fields Journal: Critical Explorations in Media and Space, January 2017, 4–5.

[6] J. David Bolter and Richard A. Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1999), 17.

[7] Bolter and Grusin, 33.