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A voice for the voiceless

17 June 2016

Rebecca Paveley speaks to artists, actors, and musicians who are using their talents in support of refugees

Adding colour to life: Joel Bergner creates murals in refugee camps

Adding colour to life: Joel Bergner creates murals in refugee camps

WHEN the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei set up his studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, on whose picturesque shoreline hundreds of refugees continue to arrive, staggering from boats or washed up by the waves, he took the world’s media with him.

He announced that he would use his art to raise consciousness about the plight of refugees, and immediately created controversy by recreating with his own adult form the lifeless image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi. “As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles. I never separate these situations from my art,” he said.

The United Nations body for refugees, the UNHCR, has recognised the important part played by the arts in advocacy and giving a voice to the voiceless; it works with artists in many of its refugee camps. Last year, it invited refugees across Jordan to paint UNHCR tents to raise awareness of their plight. The tents are now being displayed in exhibitions around the world.

The community artist Joel Bergner, from the United States, has also worked in many refugee camps, in partnership with UN agencies and other charities. He draws on the skills of artists within the camp to mentor younger refugees, creating murals of staggering proportions and vibrancy.

In Zaatari camp in Jordan, Mr Bergner has worked for the past three years with local artists to “give a voice to Syrian children. The project intends to connect these kids to positive adult role models and involve them in educational and creative activities, thereby playing a role in the rebuilding of their communities. For many, this is the only organised educational programme they’re involved in. The art itself features positive messages and uplifting imagery, a breath of fresh air in an otherwise colourless landscape.”

OTHER art forms have similarly been used to raise awareness of the plight of refugees. The small charity Music Action, set up by the musician Lis Murphy in 2010, after she spent time in Bosnia in the wake of the Balkans war, supports people who arrive in the UK having suffered torture and violence, and runs programmes in schools for refugee children.

“Music is part of the process of coping with trauma and eventually overcoming it,” she said. “We have people who are so anxious they can’t be in the room for more than five or ten minutes at a time. Music allows people to express their emotional lives, to let go of some things.”

The participants then give performances that are free and open to everyone. “When we hold performances, there is a large walk-in element, to try and reach people who have not thought about it before. We recently held a performance in the Imperial War Museum, and most of those who were there had never heard of our organisation, but they were uplifted and intrigued by the music.

“Music and art rehumanise the statistics we hear on the news. We put on beautiful performances by people who have had terrible experiences but still want to contribute through music. Art definitely has a role in creating a different narrative, to help people see what needs to change.”


TEN years ago, Actors for Refugees was set up in the UK. It has since changed its name to Actors for Human Rights, but much of its work continues to focus on refugee stories. It draws on the voluntary services of 700 actors around the UK, including household names such as Juliet Stevenson, Simon Callow, and Romola Garai. The company will perform at Greenbelt this year; the show, Asylum Dialogues, uses a script created from conversations between asylum-seekers and British citizens.

The director, Charlotte George, said: “Actors tend to be compassionate and empathetic people — that is why they are actors — and those who volunteer with us want to use their skills as a way of campaigning. We do lengthy interviews with refugees and asylum-seekers, and we aim to humanise the stories of people you hear of only in news headlines. We want to lead the audience to see that a refugee is not someone to be victimised, and they have things in common with us all. It’s about creating 3D humans and giving a voice to people whose voices we don’t otherwise hear.”

The group has been inundated with requests for performances in the past few months, since the refugee crisis in Europe dominated the headlines. “We have had more requests as a result, and we are updating our scripts. We’ve gathered new stories from Syrian refugees and combined them with people who have been here for 14 years or more, to try and show this isn’t a new crisis for Europe or the UK.

“What we want is grass-roots change. We inevitably perform to people who are already interested, but we offer them positive ways of getting involved, and give them information about what they could do. We have a Q&A after the performance, and we allow people to voice scepticism or find out how they can help. Having actors perform the pieces allows people to feel they can be sceptical or cynical, in a way they wouldn’t in front of the refugees themselves, perhaps.We want to move people along the spectrum of engagement from hostile to open-minded, though we recognise we may not be able to change someone’s mind in a one-hour theatre performance.”


THE Good Chance Theatre, set up in the Calais “Jungle” by two young British playwrights, will also be represented at Greenbelt this summer by Chris Sonnex, one of those involved with the theatre from its very beginning (see panel).

For seven months, its tent provided a very different space for the 6500 migrants living in the camp, a space where they could be entertained, tell their stories, and be creative people again, for a few hours escaping the survival mentality that ruled the camp. “It is about empowering and humanising people, having conversations with them, not using the language of hordes,” said Mr Sonnex.

Good Chance’s tent has now gone, dismantled voluntarily when the part of the camp where it was located was cleared by the French police. It could have remained, but there was little point without the audience to use it. But it will be back, and aims to expand: “Calais isn’t the only refugee camp: we are looking at options across the world.”

Remaining among the tents in the Jungle is Art Refuge UK, a charity that provides creative and therapeutic space to enable to express themselves. Its therapists provide “psychological first aid”, says its chair of trustees, Bobby Lloyd. As an artist who has spent two decades working in conflict areas, she is repeatedly asked why she offers art to those whose most urgent need is for shelter and food. But, she says, in hard times art is an “essential resource — along with dreams, family, and spirituality”.

The charity has been in the camp for nine months, working alongside and with Médicins du Monde and Médicins Sans Frontières, which run a medical centre in a neighbouring tent. All the charities workers are art therapists, who have extensive experience working with traumatised individuals. “It took a bit of time for us to win the trust of other services. We work with refugees who have just arrived, and others who have come to us each week,” she said; “with those who have experienced violence at the hands of the police in Calais — both MSF and MdM are documenting this violence.

“We use the word ‘therapy’ for those experiencing stress and trauma. Ninety per cent are male — we rarely work with women and children. A big group are unaccompanied minors, and we are working with a number of boys who we see regularly. We have made kites with Afghani men and we have a big map where people trace their journeys. The kites can be seen across the camp and beyond.”


Interview with Chris Sonnex, the community producer at the Royal Court Theatre and artistic aAssociate at Good Chance Theatre, Calais

THE refugee theatre set up in the Calais “Jungle”, on whose makeshift boards trod the likes of Jude Law and Toby Jones, may have been dismantled, but its founders have vowed that it will rise again. Good Chance Calais was set up in September 2015 by two 25-year-old scriptwriters, who met at Oxford University, Joe Murphy and Joe Robinson. Chris Sonnex, community producer at the Royal Court Theatre, was sent out to support the camp the day after it was set up.

He found refugees already helping to erect the theatre. “When I got into the camp, the space was still being built; immediately people wanted to help. A lot of refugees have building experience — one was a structural engineer. Because they had this ownership of it from the beginning, they really felt part of it, and wanted to get involved.

“It then became a space for them to express themselves and do what they wanted to do. In the camp, the mentality is you sleep and you wake up and you try to get food and do what you can to live, and then you sleep again. This space gave them some sort of relief from this monotony. Refugees started to put on their own activities. Someone came to us and wanted to set up a karate class early in the morning; he turned out to be an Iranian Olympic medallist.

“It all redefined what theatre is; this was a karate class, and people joined in, but other people watched and were entertained by it. It was all about what the people there wanted to do rather than us coming in and putting on productions.”

The theatre also hosted cinema nights twice a week, showing films brought in by a volunteer living in Calais. “Braveheart was especially popular,” he said. There were music nights, too, featuring performances played on instruments made by refugees. “We had Arabic rappers, but the language barrier didn’t matter: the performance was more than that. We also held open-mic sessions for people, and we could see the benefits to people’s mental and physical health, living in what is a pretty dreadful environment.”


GOOD CHANCE THEATRE was backed by senior figures in the theatre world such as Stephen Daldry, who directed the film and stage show Billy Elliot and the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics. The theatre drew in dozens of volunteers who wanted to use their skills to help: “Set designers, actors, producers, writers, musicians — you name it: they all came out and gave their time. It was such a testament to the theatre industry.”

Even though the theatre was taken down as part of the clearance by French police in March, its work continues, with performances at Greenbelt this summer and other venues around the world. “It is part of our obligation to tell these stories, now we have been there and seen it with our own eyes. I came across an eight-year-old Kurdish boy who spoke six languages fluently and played loads of instruments — he was incredible. There were 375 unaccompanied children there when the camp was being shut down by the French. What is going to happen to them now? This is one of the biggest tragedies, and the world is going to judge us for it.

“But still I feel positive that we can change things, if only we can see people as humans. It has been such an experience to see it with my own eyes and also to see Britain through other people’s eyes. For the refugees, Britain is a place of freedom, of democracy, and of social obligations. We are seen as good by others. But to these people who really love Britain because of James Bond or Mr Bean, we had to say to them, ‘If you do get in, you may find hostility towards you: you may not be wanted.’ It was a very hard thing to say to people who had become your friends.”


Chris Sonnex will be speaking at Greenbelt, 26-29 August.

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