Opinion

How the arts is supporting healing in refugees and showcasing their contribution to society

This year’s Refugee Week shows for how the arts can support healing in refugees and all of us, writes Almir Koldzic.

Fatiha El-Ghorri is a comedian with No Direction Home, the London group helping refugees get in to comedy

Fatiha El-Ghorri is a comedian with No Direction Home, the London group helping refugees get in to comedy. Image: No Direction Home

It was in 1998, a few years after leaving Yugoslavia for London, that I came across a Refugee Week event on London’s Southbank, featuring musicians, spoken word artists, dancers and other performers from all over the world. The atmosphere was warm and exciting; the crowd friendly and engaged.

The performing artists were unapologetically cool, talented and confident – presenting a picture of refugees that was totally different from the ones presented by the British press at the time. To the young me, navigating the loss of my country and searching for ways to rebuild myself, this was a moment of connection, when I felt like I might have found a place, and a community, where I could belong.  

I’ve been involved in Refugee Week ever since, eventually co-founding Counterpoints Arts – a national organisation for developing the arts by and about refugees and migrants, which is now also a proud coordinator of Refugee Week, an annual festival celebrating the contributions of refugees.

Through hundreds of arts, educational and community activities held across the country every June, Refugee Week is an opportunity for people from all backgrounds to connect and celebrate our shared communities, – and for those who have sought safety in the UK to share their experiences and perspectives in creative and often unexpected ways.   

At the heart of this work is the belief that the arts can move, inspire and surprise us, but also help us better connect to one another.

This capacity of the arts to strengthen our connection to others and the world around us is, as I’ve experienced and many studies have shown, also an essential part of any process of healing, recovery and regaining hope. And this is something that has become especially and universally needed since COVID, which is partly what inspired us to choose the theme of ‘Healing’ for this year’s Refugee Week festival.    

Healing means recovering from a painful experience or situation, so that we can continue to live. Those who have lost their homes and had to build new lives from scratch know this better than anyone. We have much to learn from refugees about holding onto hope when going on seems impossible – as well as about how art, creativity and community can help us to heal.   

This year’s Refugee Week programme offers a rich diversity of examples for how the arts and creativity can support healing in refugees – and all of us.   

In London, No Direction Home, a collective of stand-up comedians from refugee and migrant backgrounds, will perform at the Southbank Centre and National Maritime Museum. For audiences, these gigs tend to be unforgettable moments of learning and empathising through laughter. For performers, they provide, as Yasmeen Audisho Ghrawi, one of the participating comedians explains, “a space for each one of us to reclaim ourselves and reclaim our voices and our power”.  

Almir Koldzic
Almir Koldzic. Image: Nana Varveropoulou

The Great Walk Together, a national initiative by Refugee Week and The Great Get Together, invites people in locations up and down the country to come together to walk, experiencing the healing power of nature while reflecting on the journeys that refugees face.  

In Bristol, the city-wide Bristol Refugee Festival celebrates ‘Healing Through Community’, featuring exhibitions, walks, music gigs, workshops and other events that aim to help refugees rebuild their lost networks and connections so ‘they can feel welcome, safe, valued and so begin to heal.’   

Many Refugee Week event organisers have built activities around the idea that participating in art making is therapeutic and potentially transformative. Other initiatives might help with healing in less obvious ways, such as by providing greater visibility – and more nuanced representations – of refugee experiences in public spaces.

Examples of this are Little Amal, the 3.5 metre tall puppet of a refugee girl who will be making a journey from Manchester to Kent; The Council House in Derby which will be lit up every day of Refugee Week; and the Stories of Sanctuary Sunderland Choir, an inclusive ‘pop up choir’ which will be learning and singing songs written by refugee communities celebrating Sunderland as a place of welcome. 

As the past few years have shown us, healing matters to all of us – whether it’s about looking after ourselves and each other at difficult times, overcoming political divisions or coming together to fight for the survival of our shared planet. Whoever and wherever you are, we hope you’ll join us for Refugee Week 2022, to imagine a world where healing replaces harm, and care becomes our shared currency. 

Refugee Week 2022 runs 20-26 June, and you can take part by joining an event near you, or doing one of eight ‘Simple Acts’. Refugee Festival Scotland runs 17-26 June and has the theme ‘Storytelling’.  

Almir Koldzic is CEO of Counterpoints Arts.

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