SCOTTISH REFUGEE COUNCIL
Projects from 2008 - 2010
Scottish Refugee Council is an independent charity dedicated to providing advice and information both to refugees living in Scotland and to those who are seeking asylum here. Since they were established in 1985, they have been campaigning for the fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, raising awareness of refugee issues through the media, arts and local communities, and working hard to influence policy in both Scotland and the UK.
EDUCATION FACILITATOR: LIFE AFTER IRAQ
Photographer Angela Catlin and writer Billy Briggs were originally commissioned in 2008 by Scottish Refugee Council to create the Life After Iraq exhibition. For this, Catlin and Briggs met with Iraqi refugees in both Syria and Glasgow to bring their harrowing stories to light. Then, in Autumn 2009, Scottish Refugee Council commissioned me to tour a light-weight version of the exhibition around Glasgow secondary schools, to design and deliver education workshops for the pupils, and to write an education resource for use in the classroom. In late 2010, I toured the outreach programme to further schools around Glasgow, Inverclyde and East Ayrshire.
REFUGEE WEEK ASSISTANT
Between April and July 2008, I worked full-time as Refugee Week Assistant for the Scottish Refugee Council, working alongside the Arts and Cultural Development Officer to coordinate, promote and evaluate Refugee Week Scotland 2008.
Refugee Week is celebrated in many countries throughout the world as a week-long festival of events programmed to coincide with World Refugee Day on 20th June. The Week is an opportunity for friendships to be forged and communities to integrate in both local and national celebrations.
The UK's Refugee Week mission statement reads:
Refugee Week provides a platform where positive images of refugees can be promoted in order to create a culture of welcome throughout the UK. Our ultimate aim is to create a better understanding between different communities and to encourage successful integration enabling refugees to live in safety and to continue making a successful contribution to the UK.
In 2008, Refugee Week Scotland encompassed more than 90 events, including theatre, dance, music, exhibitions, talks, film screenings, football tournaments, poetry readings, media awards and community celebrations. Over 22,500 people engaged with the events over the course of the week.
As part of the evaluation for the project, I interviewed a number of participants to gain further insight in to the impact that Refugee Week can have in our local communities. Here are a couple of examples:
IN FOCUS: Bijan and Diversity Films
Meeting Iranian filmmaker Bijan, it is difficult to believe that he has only been living in Glasgow since August 2007. Over the last few months he has been working hard to learn fluent English and this has no doubt been aided by his developing relationship with Diversity Films.
Scottish Refugee Council first put Bijan in touch with Diversity Films in November 2007 and since then he has been supported to continue with his work as a filmmaker. He spent the first few months subtitling three of his existing films so that they could be shared with a wider audience and as a result all three were screened as part of this event. Abigail Howkins, co-founding director of Diversity Films, says that one of the great things about Refugee Week is that a lot of refugees are involved in the very making of it. It allows for positive images of refugees to be seen, instead of the negative ones, and there is an opportunity for many different cultures to be shared and celebrated through music, dance and film. Equally, Bijan sees investment in refugees as having a great deal of potential: “People who come here are very ambitious people and how they live is important to them. They have often put themselves and their family through danger in order to live as they want to. There is an enormous opportunity for this country in having these ambitious people here … Refugee Week can help give these people a position. If you help these people, you help this country.
Diversity Films' commitment to investing in Bijan is echoed in their work with other international groups and filmmakers in Glasgow. Through Kingsway Eye, the filmmaking group they have established in Kingsway Court, a number of refugee women from Pakistan, Azerbaijan and Zambia have been learning filmmaking skills and participating in creating ‘Get Real!’, an ongoing local community chat show project, whilst one of the longest-standing members of the group, Leo Saidenough from Russia, has honed his camera, sound and editing skills and volunteered on six of the films Diversity Films have produced this year, receiving training and mentoring from their professional film trainers.
Over the next few months, as well as continuing work with the filmmakers and community groups they have already developed projects with, Diversity Films is looking to roll out their filmmaking initiatives in to other areas of Glasgow and beyond. Bijan also has new projects in the pipeline including a drama about an Interpreter, which he is currently writing, and a documentary about exile from Iran. This is certainly only the beginning for Bijan and Diversity Films with the success of their collaboration so far paving the path for an inspirational future.
IN FOCUS: Rachel Jury and conFAB
Published poet, writer and producer, Rachel Jury, created conFAB in January 2004 with the dual aims of both supporting artists and producing work. In brief, conFAB seeks to:
- Facilitate and nurture the needs of the writing community
- Develop opportunities for those working within a text based medium
- Produce a wide range of high quality work, including poet’s solo shows, publications, theatrical productions and films
Rachel’s passion for the arts and the written and spoken word in particular, has ensured that this company has gone from strength to strength, developing into a vibrant organisation whose work engages with a diverse audience.
For the last four years, conFAB has created work in partnership with communities as part of Refugee Week Scotland, but 2008 was the first time that they developed a professional arts event with other artists and professional organisations. This departure was something of a risk for conFAB, not least because there was the big question of who their audience would be, as well as the inherent challenges of new collaborations. With community based work, a portion of the audience is inevitably made up of family, friends and neighbours but with a professional event, there are no guarantees. However, Rachel speaks positively about the experience, saying: “Working with Street Level and Paragon was really rewarding, really enriching. We attracted an audience who were there for the art, as much as anything else. It gave conFAB a great platform for developing professional work and it was great to be at the Tron.”
This year’s Refugee Week event also allowed conFAB to continue their development of multi-vocal performance work with the six poets who make up Chromatic Voices. Originally, conFAB was approached in 2006 by poet Ashby McGowan with his idea of creating this collective of poets. Rachel was taken by how unusual and unique this idea was, likening traditional poets to the solo-presence of the stand-up comic, and was also intrigued by the interesting boundary between poetry and theatre that this work would explore. Over the next year, funding was secured, Chromatic Voices developed, and the collective performed Ashby’s work at Human Rights Day 2007. The success of this spurred the group to continue their collaboration, with all six poets writing new work specifically for 'Snap, Rhythm and Rhyme'. The great achievements of this collective to date are testimony to the invaluable support that conFAB provides.
Talking with Rachel, it is apparent that her work is informed by her ethics from the inside out. She is aware that the challenging content of some of the work may not appeal to everyone and that some may disagree about how appropriate it is for a person who has never been an asylum seeker or a refugee to speak about that experience in such a public forum. For Rachel, it comes down to finding a way to strike a balance: “It is important that asylum seekers and refugees are heard but it is also important that artists who support their situation have a chance to express that to. You have to do it with integrity and it has to be informed. Having knowledge impacts on your life, whether you are a refugee or not, and it is important to know what your culture, politics and government are doing to other people.”
Despite this departure to a professional arts event for this year’s Refugee Week, Rachel and conFAB remain committed to community engagement, saying: “It is really important. It is about empowerment. Also, it is about expressing realities. When I was growing up I was a pretty wild child, but I wanted to be an actress. If I hadn't of had that focus, I’d either be dead or in jail now. I know that, and that’s why I know that it has a transformative power … [and] it’s generally something people are congratulated on. In a world in which you are told that you are worthless in really subtle and sophisticated ways, to be congratulated is really important and valuable.”
Rachel is not the kind of person who will let an opportunity pass her by and so the future for conFAB is full of possibilities. For example, whilst waiting at Glasgow Airport for a recent flight to the Isle of Harris, Rachel was fortunate to meet a leading figure in Gaelic Arts and now they are planning to develop multi-vocal poetry using Gaelic legends. Over the next year, conFAB would also like to produce a film and they will continue to develop projects for Refugee Week too. On this Rachel remarks: “Refugee Week is great. It is a celebration and the real power is in the small celebrations of work that have been carried out throughout the year. I see Refugee Week as being like a Christmas for this kind of work. Integration is something that is happening but this is not something that a week in itself can achieve. It is an accumulation. We need to change the focus as the year’s go on – this is how we will make a Refugee Week that is sustainable."
All photography on this page is by Human Rights Photojournalist Angela Catlin.