It’s Refugee Week in the UK. (Please open this link in another window and listen to Open Air FM’s ‘Celebrating Sanctuary’ programme whilst reading this post.) Refugee Week is a festival of arts, cultural and education activity that celebrates the contribution of refugees to British life. Why’s this anything to do with the arts? Well, many people who have to go into exile are often put in that position because of their cultural activism – their writing, their films, their art, as well as their politics. And culture becomes even more important in exile.
If you want to know why you should be bothered at all you could start by reading the novelist Mark Haddon’s recent piece about the way the Government treats asylum seekers in the UK. My wife is an ESOL teacher in Stockton-on-Tees, and I’ve met many people with astonishing stories, talented people with lots to give, some of whom end up sleeping on friends’ floors and getting by on vouchers and charity, when they could be giving something back to the country they are very grateful too, despite their troubles. I know the stories Mark Haddon tells are sadly typical. I also share the feelings of anger and shame he describes.
There are an increasing number of projects trying to ensure the skills and talents that people bring to this country don’t get lost under the brutal pressures of survival. Exiled Writers, for instance brings writers together in London and on the web. You can look on the Refugee Week site for other examples.
The North East’s best Adopted-Geordie-American-Iranian filmmaker Tina Gharavi has made an eight hour film called Asylum Carwash for the Engaging Refugees & Asylum Seekers project; a partnership project between National Museums Liverpool, Salford Museums and Art Gallery, Tyne & Wear Museums and Leicester City Museums Service. The description ends with the question I’ll end on too: How often do we think about what people are forced to endure in order to survive?
(This post definitely fits into the ‘personal opinion not necessarily reflecting the Arts Council position’ category, though I’m proud to see our logo on the Refugee Week funders and partners page. If you’re interested in another essay on art and asylum, you can still read my introduction to Geoff Broadway’s 2001 Durham Cathedral Residency exhibition on his site. The title of this post comes from W.H. Auden's Refugee Blues.)