The Sound of Borders Part 2: Active Citizenship

In part 2 of our series on sound and borders, cultural geographer Tom Western talks with contributing editor Nick Smith about the work of the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum (SGYF) in Athens, Greece. Featuring sound clips created by the SGYF team, the discussion unpacks the concept of active citizenship and the ways that sound can challenge the static character of border regimes in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean.


Tom Western is a lecturer in Social and Cultural Geography at University College London. He works primarily in Athens, Greece, where he studies and contributes to migratory activisms and creative citizenship movements in the city.

Nick Smith is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Toronto.


Intro song: All the Colors in the World by Podington Bear

Logo designed by Janita van Dyk.


To learn more about the work of the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum and to find the full archive of their recorded work visit the active citizens sound archive here:


Tom Western [0:00] Oraia, Let's go.

[Music Plays]

Nick Smith [00:19] That's the sound of SGYF the “Syrian and Greek Youth Forum.” SGYF is an international group of activists and volunteers based out of Athens that was founded in 2018. The group has the goal of building community and supporting participatory research amongst migrant communities in Greece. Discussions of citizenship and borders are at the center of the group's activism, and these discussions often revolve around sound and the ways that sound can challenge how we think about border politics. To understand more about the origins of SGYF and the ways that borders and sound can be thought about together, I sat down with one of the group's founding members, Tom Western.

[Music plays]

NS [1:03] So welcome. Dr. Western

TW [1:06] Thank you so much. Please call me Tom. And thank you so much to the invitation.

NS [1:10] Tom is a lecture in Social and Cultural Geography at UCL in London and his work as an academic is very closely tied to his work with SGYF.

TW [1:18] Initially just after my PhD, I didn't actually get an academic job right away, so I was living and working in Athens and scraping by doing some things with music, teaching some stuff, and I just became involved in, or maybe fell into, different social circles and maybe solidarity networks. And through friendships that developed through that, I was lucky enough to get to know the people who were starting about the same time, the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum. And through a lot of conversations we had as that was just coming into focus and getting up and running, I was invited to, to be part of the team, which I immediately and happily accepted that invitation. So since then that's really been the main focus of my work for the last, maybe two and a half years, being a member of the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum. And one of the things that we do is run this site called the Active Citizens Sound Archive.

NS [2:20] Side note, you can find the link to this website and the liner notes for this podcast.

TW [2:24] We set it up together in 2019 to try and amplify the citizenship work of the team. So the team, it's a mix of people, many of whom are from refugee backgrounds who came from Syria to Greece, but many of whom aren't, you know, lots of people who are Greek, lots of people from different places as well. And through our kind of practices of creative activism, we try to say that we're all now Athenians and all kinds of citizens of the city, and use this online space, this sound archive to, to show that, to perform that, to amplify it. We recognized quite early on that it would be useful to make our own media, because there's a lot of media narratives, as I'm sure, you know, Nick, as well as a lot of scholarship, about, what's still often called the refugee crisis in Athens and in Greece, that produces certain ideas and stereotypes and almost never helps, or, represents the people who are affected directly by it in ways that they would choose to be represented. So this archive now contains a bunch of radio programs that we've made, recordings from performances and events that we've hosted or participated in, some writing that we've done together, some videos now we're kind of branching out into lots of different media, but very often with sound. Sound first, sound as the focal point. And we hope that it's a kind of platform for communication within the city, within Athens, and different movements that are happening and unfolding there, but also a platform for communication with other things, similar things happening in other cities, as well, around the Mediterranean, elsewhere in Europe. And maybe even more broadly.

NS [4:12] One of the concepts, just in kind of reading your work and exploring the content that's online, that I've come across is active citizenship. So I wonder if you can speak a little bit about this concept of active citizenship as it relates to the work that you're doing in Athens: research work and solidarity work.

TW [4:36] Sure, and actually I should give the credit for this idea mostly to my colleagues in the Syrian Greek Youth Forum. This is our kind of guiding concept, it's incredibly important to the team. It's not our idea, initially, a bunch of stuff has been written about active citizenship, in different places and at different moments. But it sort of became our main connection point. I was thinking about questions of citizenship and Athens for, for a longer time before I met the team, and then it became the kind of motivating, galvanizing force for the team's work. And so it was very nice connection that we had. Basically, it's a way of showing that even when people don't have legal citizenship, you know, are not legally citizens of, of Greece in this case, they can still be very much active citizens of the place. And it's interesting to think about how this plays out at city level, differently than it plays out at a national level or kind of from the state. So we are into think citizenship differently to decouple it from the nation state, to disrupt and remake it, perhaps, as something that comes from street level and from everyday practices of belonging.

And to really sort of open up this idea of citizenship to be... just to think it differently from the way it's ordinarily thought of. And what that does is, again this is particularly important for people who have gone to Greece with refugee background, is to show that that label is not the defining force and the people I work with insist on being called citizens or active citizens, rather than being labeled as migrants or refugees and perpetually being positioned outside of the nation outside of the society. So it's super important as a concept for our work.

NS [6:36] One of Tom's colleagues at SGYF is Wael Habbal. Wael expands upon the concept of active citizenship by contrasting it with the legal label of refugee.

Wael Habbal [6:46] The word citizen for us is a very, very important because we believe we are active citizens: through our activism, through our activities, through our movement, through our daily life in Athens, Greece. We believe also the methodology of using words. It has a lot of effect on people who are receiving it. So that's why in, beginning of 2019, we start announcing ourselves as active citizens. We asked many people in the city, different entities and NGOs, to start calling us active citizens rather than calling us the legal term refugees. Why this is important for us, because, if I will hear from other people that they start to recognize me and call me as an active citizen, I will start to act as an active citizen towards developing myself and towards protecting and developing the city that I am in.

NS [7:51] Another word that SGYF has engaged with is “borders,” and just like with citizenship the group is thinking about borders in ways which are distinct from conventional understandings of the term. Borders are not just lines on maps, but features of our everyday lives, which position people differently in relation to one another and to the spaces we cultivate together.

TW [8:10] I think with both of these things, with borders and with citizenship, it's important to just say that these are not natural things, right, I think of them both as kinds of regimes that have been produced through histories and then been naturalized in ways that are just commonly understood now. So we tend to think of borders and citizenships as things that are obvious and self-evident: borders as lines on maps or things that just exist at the perimeter of a territory, and citizenships as the kind of community that exists inside of them. But a lot of very important work has been done on this to show that both of them in different ways are products of European colonial thinking, wherein people were positioned in a sort of racialized hierarchy as part of the European colonial project and positioned at different distances away from the idea of European civilization, let's say, and away from then the ideal of citizenship as it existed in Europe and in the nation state model that existed. So these things, citizenship and borders, have colonial baggage, lets say, and it's important then to think against that and think about how we can do things differently with those concepts.

So on the one hand that means recognizing how borders do not just exist at the edge of the territory, or as the line on the map. They completely permeate society. They pop up constantly in everyday life, in urban space, in language, in culture, on peoples' bodies even. So the border exists on many, many levels and is multiple. But on the other hand that means we can sort of try to unmake them or at least show how they exist and contest them. So again, in the work of the team and in the writing that I do that connects with that, thinking against the border and unmaking the border is a very important thing; by showing those histories, but also by showing how, because they're not natural, they can then be unmade and thought differently.

NS [10:26] I wonder how, how sound figures into this, these processes of unmaking and this thinking about kind of decoupling concepts like citizenship, borders, from their kind of normalized meanings.

TW [10:42] Yeah, great question, and thank you for it. It's super important. And I, I want to say that thinking about sound and borders together isn't something even new. Working with sound generally is often thought of as being maybe something novel, and something that's just kind of emerged or is even emerging, but people have been working and thinking with sound for a long time and that has included questions of thinking about borders and auralities. Thinking about questions of sound and citizenship together. And I kind of build on that. For me at a fundamental level, I think of sound as something that's always moving, right? Always traveling. And so it's something that's very useful to help us think about other things also through movement. So in this case we can think about citizenship itself through movement or citizenship as movement, or even as a movement, if we, if we listened to it, instead of just think about it in the way that the state sees it. And again I'm deliberately putting those two senses into contrast there. So, if we think about the particular geographies of Athens and Greece, that's a city that has been Europeanized for particular historical reasons, but it's very much a Mediterranean city. And the sounds that we might hear in Athens are sounds that you will also hear around the Mediterranean. And again, people have written about the long histories of movements around the sea and explicitly mentioned sound as part of those movements: the movement of people and ideas and things around and around the sea.

So we can think about sound as moving that way, and that helps us then decenter kind of European ways of thinking about, about Greece, about Athens. [12:43] For me, it's equally interesting to think about sound as a kind of mobilization. And again around that Mediterranean geography political voices and vocal activisms have also been shared, produced, collectively and relationally across cities around that region for a long, long time. And so these movements are always in circulation and again sound then can help us sort of question these border logics that positions Europe as this kind of discrete, self-contained entity. And it also, again, it plays out on everyday levels. So, as much as there's a kind of border spectacle in Greece that is well-documented, there's also an anti-border spectacle in the city, which is very audible, is very sonic, is very noisy often. And you can hear these kinds of demands. You can hear resistance. You can hear these things performed through sound, but you can also hear the poetics. So, as well as the politics, you can hear the poetics of people making a life in the city. And you can hear the kind of conversations between cities. A friend of mine, who is my colleague in the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum talks about this as being able to hear different cities within the city of Athens now. So you can listen to multiple cities within one space and you get the sense of relational geographies that again contest these ideas of borders and border regimes.

NS [14:24] Here's the colleague that Tom was referring to, whose name is Kareem Al Kabbani, talking more about the connection between cities and sound.

Kareem Al Kabbani [14:36] The connection between the cities, you can feel it through voice, lets say, you can see it as a communication between cities. Like one of the reasons that we really believe in the sound, and we talk before about the imagination. When we listen the city singing, you can build with your imagination the city in good way. And you can imagine, how is this city sending the message to this city? When we sing, when [Ibrahim] al-Qashoush sings, when [Abdel-Basset] al-Sarout sings for Egypt, they sing for Egypt as a city. And I see it had been accepted in Egypt from Syria. That's why we really rely on the sound. We are really more connected to the sound, with the really a lot of people around the world, we want to be connected, you know. We see like the connection of the cities our responsibility as musicians, we says that before. We says like we are musicians, and people in the future, they need to hear what happened in this period of time, in this diverse period of time.

NS [15:44] In Athens in the last decade, there's been a lot of activism, not only being mobilized around what's often called the refugee crisis, but around the enormous impacts that austerity has had on the lives of Greek people in the wake of the debt crisis. I asked Tom about how SGYF positions itself in relation to these complex and interconnected forms of activist work, and why specifically sound is an important medium to work with when thinking intersectionally.

TW [16:08] I would say that sound again is a way of highlighting connections, highlighting commonalities that exist in the city and exist in history. So, again, the team through its uses of I'd say creative activism, as much as active citizenship. It's a way of kind of finding actually shared struggles. So these, yeah, these twin crises that are often positioned as these kind of monolithic forces, they, they themselves exist in relation of course, but the people working to contest them are also part of the same struggle. And this, for me, this isn't recognized anywhere near enough. There's a sense of resistance against the austerity measures of course. And there's a growing literature on what's often called migrant activism or migrant resistance. But there's not so much recognition of how these things actually exist together and how people find each other in these shared struggles.

So again the team, the Syrian and Greek Youth Forum is very active in contributing not just to a particular, like a single issue, but contributing to broader circles within Athenian society that create these, these mutual initiatives, as you say, and put these different kinds of solidarities in relation with one another. The way I think about it, to like just bring in a little bit of the Greek language, is that the words in Greek for the like the political movement is “to kinima” but the word for movement as in the movement of people and the circulation of things is “kinisi.” So it's two different words for movement, but I think we need to put those two different levels of movement together, “to kinima,” and “I kinisi,” to actually understand how people are working across and against these, these dividing categories of refugees and hosts, and to contest all of these, these issues.

[18:17] [Singing]

NS [18:30] Many of the sound clips you've heard in today's episode, including the one you're listening to now are a part of longer sound pieces created by SGYF, as a part of their work. These are available on their website at “,” and I would highly encourage you to go and give them to listen. This episode of AnthroPod was produced by myself, Nick Smith, with assistance and feedback from Céline Eschenbrenner and the team of contributing editors that makes AnthroPod happen. This is the final episode of the season for us but we’ll be back next Fall with discussions of ethnographic collaboration, fieldwork in America, and further additions to our series on sound and borders.

Thanks for listening, and see you next time.