25 August 2022

Refugee Week celebrates the contributions of refugees and people seeking sanctuary in order to challenge negative stereotypes and create a space where refugees can be seen and heard beyond their experience of displacement. Here, Anna Bielenberg, BPP STAR, gives her take on an unforgettable Refugee Week 2022. 

Possibly more so than any year previously, this year’s Refugee Week was a triumph of love, resilience, and human connection over the forces that inspire hate and alienation. 10 city-wide festivals throughout England witnessed an explosion of artistic, cultural, sporting and educational events. Each provided an opportunity to tell a story of lived experience of displacement, allowing for an appreciation of the pain and the resilience of the journey, while at the same time celebrating diversity and the ways in which displaced people enrich our society. 

The emphasis on sharing the lived refugee experience offers the possibility for displaced people to be seen and heard on their own terms. These stories combat the many label-and-number-focused stories told about refugees in the media or by the government. By drawing the humanity of displaced people to the attention of the general public in this way, the aim of Refugee Week is to facilitate connection, and recruit more people to the refugee welcome movement all-year round.

Refugee Week is organised by Counterpoints Arts — a charity that supports and produces the arts by and about migrants and refugees — but it is an umbrella festival, meaning that anybody can organise an event as part of the festival. As a result, Refugee Week sees events organised by some of the biggest refugee organisations in the world (such as UNHCR) alongside events organised entirely by volunteers or university students (including STAR groups), both with and without lived experience. 

The structure of Refugee Week is powerful because there is no gatekeeper of stories. The wide range of nature, form, and topics is testament to the fact that the category of ‘refugees’ contains a million shades of experience: The label of ‘refugee’, which is so often used as a blanket term, only means that an individual is seeking refuge. It doesn’t tell us anything about who they are as a human, their journey, the life they left behind or how they are feeling now that they are here. This is why art and culture created by refugees are so important as part of the campaign to build a welcoming society. 

I attended a lot of events in Refugee Week, but I do not want to review or place my own narrative on the stories that are being told or the way in which they are being told. Instead, I will provide a list of the things I took part in, and encourage others to partake in their own personal relationships with these stories:

  1. Simple as Water (available on Sky and YouTube). This is an American Documentary Film by Oscar-winning director Megan Mylan. The film documents Syrian families across five countries, revealing the impact of war, separation and displacement. The film is a meditation on the elemental bonds of family told through portraits of four Syrian families in the aftermath of war.
  2. Refugee Realities – a podcast series created by students on the Forced Displacement and Refugees course in the Department of International Development at LSE, with the aim of helping to celebrate and bring awareness to Refugee Week UK 2022. Available on multiple platforms including Apple Podcasts. 
  3. Create Without Borders – a non-profit organisation based in Lewisham, which promotes and celebrates the work of creatives with lived experience of forced migration by collaboratively creating digital and physical spaces that showcase their work.
  4. P21 Gallery is a charitable trust promoting contemporary Arab art and culture, located in Somerstown, which aims to aims to promote and display such diverse cultural projects from the Middle East, the Maghreb, and from the Arabic speaking communities in the United Kingdom and Europe, and thereby increase awareness of such cultural and artistic wealth. I attended the event entitled VELVET SOCIETY: Power & Glamour in 90s Damascus, (presented by Litehouse Gallery) which was part of a series of events held for Refugee Week. Current exhibitions can be seen here
  5. We Are Here Because You Were There. This was a talk at the Southbank Centre, which offered a glimpse of the experiences of Afghan former interpreters working for the British Army who have recently been resettled to the UK. You can read more about the artistic project and the Sulha Alliance here. “We are here because you were there” is an aphorism, coined by Ambalavaner Sivanandan, a leading intellectual on the subject of race relations in the late 20th and early 21st Century. 
  6. STAR Summer Meet (Pictured above) This Refugee Week the STAR network held our first in-person national event for over two years. The STAR Summer Meet was a chance to connect our large community of STARs and spread the message of welcome on a solidarity walk through central London, which encouraged us to reflect on how the systematic racism that upholds the current asylum system is embedded in the city’s infrastructure.

In a much needed antidote to the false narratives spewed by the government and the media, the art showcased during Refugee Week offers a myriad of reasons why displaced people not only deserve to be welcomed with open arms, but make our British society richer with their presence. The question is not ‘why’ but ‘how’, and the answer is allowing yourself to be moved into activism through this art. Join the refugee welcome movement today! 

Anna Bielenberg is President of BPP STAR in London.

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