For Refugee Week (16 – 20 June) our Widening Participation Officer Sam ran a refugee arts day for three local secondary schools here at Central Library. I spent an enjoyable morning getting covered in acrylic paint, supporting artist Amang Mardokhy’s painting workshop.
Amang is Kurdish, from Northern Iraq. He came to the UK in the early 2000s, fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime. At the start of his workshop he told the students a little about his personal story, including his experience of being an artist under a repressive regime and the difficult decision to take his family, including his five year old son, in search of safety. But he talked more about his artistic motivations, to express the suffering of the Kurdish people and explore global experiences of war and displacement. The students produced postcard-sized paintings reflecting on the contrast between peace and war; safety and danger, beauty and ugliness, plenty and poverty, belonging and loss.
Throughout the week I was also tweeting extracts from our 2005 oral history project Distance We Have Travelled (#DistanceWeHaveTravelled); interviews with Somali, Afghani and Kurdish refugees now living in Manchester. I found myself coming back to one particular testimony. Keje (not her real name) is Kurdish, born in Iraq in 1984. Her family first fled their home in 1990, to escape the Iraqi invasion of the Kurdish region:
I went to school just in the first year. When I was six people were running away from Iraq, from the cities, running through the mountains and through Iran. It was horrible.
They settled for some time in Baghdad, but after her father ‘disappeared’ her mother paid an agent to take them to safety. The details of her journey are hard to read; a catalogue of cold, separation, violence, dangerous river crossings, make-shift camps, warehouses and lorries. They reached the UK in 2000, broken and traumatised:
And I can’t, you know, think about it too much. My mum got mental illness because of all those tragic things, and my dad is missing. We don’t know if he lives or not.
The end of her testimony is equally bleak. After five years in the UK her application for refugee status had been rejected and her future was uncertain:
Sometimes people shout at you. And swear at you. Say, you know, rude stuff. And you say ‘I wish I wasn’t here.’ But what can you do? You don’t have a place – you know, a safe place. I’ve never had – we’ve never had a safe place to live in. And then I can’t imagine having a place to live anymore. Here sometimes it’s not safe. A few years ago it wasn’t like this, but now it’s getting worse. I don’t know. I don’t know what to expect anymore.
It struck me that Keje had never known peace or plenty or belonging. Unlike some of the other interviewees in the collection she didn’t have a peaceful childhood to think back to, a time when life felt settled and certain, in comparison to the uncertainty of being a refugee. Her experience of absolute displacement is one that I as a Westerner find almost impossible to comprehend, and she (language barrier notwithstanding) clearly found difficult to express in words.
As a visual artist Amang has access to a non-verbal way of expressing these experiences – his own and his people’s. Working with young people in this visual format seems to be a particularly powerful and appropriate way of approaching these sometimes unspeakable refugee experiences.