Travel

Meet the changemakers: Lorna Cannon from Refugee Voices Tours

In 2015, an estimated one million displaced people arrived in Europe seeking refuge. Berlin-based tour guide Lorna Cannon saw the opportunity to give them a platform to tell their stories.Saturday, 17 August 2019

By Annie Brookstone
Lorna Cannon

Why did you start Refugee Voices Tours?
In 2012, I was involved with a movement occupying two spaces in the district of Kreuzberg and fighting for refugee rights. It didn’t get any international coverage but in 2015, when the refugee crisis was getting a lot of media attention, I noticed more and more people on tours asking about refugees in Berlin and what life’s like for them. My first thought was that it’s not my story to tell, but because walking tours are such a good way to get people engaging with spaces and stories, it could give refugees a voice.

How did It go from concept to reality?
It started as a Facebook event with some friends who were refugees from the Occupy movement. The event went viral. I met some Syrian guys who said they wanted to do the same thing. They came on one of my regular tours and said they saw a lot of similarities between Syria and Berlin — that’s how the ‘Why We’re Here’ tour was created.

So the guides themselves are instrumental in developing the tours?
Yes, that’s what’s so great about this organisation. We’re a real team; all the ideas and tours are a collaborative effort. Refugee Voices spread to Copenhagen in 2016, and we’re setting up in London and Paris too, so our team is growing across Europe.

What do people take from the tours?
After a tour, a lot of people say they’ve come away with information they didn’t have before. They feel like they can engage in discussions in a more productive way. Rather than people volunteering to help refugees, they’re going to listen to them, which allows for a better power dynamic and more productive relationship. After the tour, we go to a Syrian family-run restaurant. A lot of the tour deals with difficult issues, but we also want people to see how beautiful the culture is.

It must be intensely emotional?
I often see people tear up during a tour. It’s not a news report that’s sterile and delivered without passion. It can also be emotional for the guides, which is why what they do is so amazing. They relive such traumatic experiences and open up to complete strangers all the time.

How do you feel about being in situations where you’re sometimes speaking for an entire marginalised segment of society?
It’s a big responsibility. The rhetoric and attention on the subject has changed a lot but it remains controversial. If I get asked to give a talk or speak on a panel, I sit down with the team to discuss it – I’ll never talk as if these experiences are my own.

Published in the Earth Collection, distributed with the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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