Refugees tell their stories in a powerful new exhibition, Belonging, on now at the Museum of London. It shows how refugees settling in the UK contribute a great deal to this country – including working in the community, voluntary and public sectors.
Many work in organisations supporting refugees and asylum seekers.
There are over 500 such groups in London alone.
Jewish refugees were the first to come to Britain in the 1880’s. In 2006, the highest number of refugees come from Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Iran, China, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, India and the Sudan.
Refugees featured in the exhibition include Asmeret Tesfazghi (pictured, right), from Eritrea, a foster carer for vulnerable teenagers.
Mohamed Jama from Somalia came to London in 1989. He started out providing domiciliary care to Somalis in Greenwich. Now he works in 16 London boroughs, supplying home care to all communities.
Tesfay Sebhat (pictured, right) arrived in London in 1980 from Eritrea, having lost his sight while fighting in the war for Eritrean independence. He is now a youth and play team leader for the London borough of Lambeth. Tesfay says when he first arrived, “I didn’t go out for 40 days. After 40 days I ask them to go to a pub. The pub was the main opening door to communicating with the outside world, to communicate with the British.”
Paul Sathianesan (pictured, left), was born in Sri Lanka and came to the UK in 1985, following race riots and war. In London he started as a volunteer in the community, worked in a petrol station, and then for the Refugee Council and as a consultant on asylum and refugee policy before becoming a Labour councillor in Newham.
Mehabat Salih (pictured below, in red) from Iraq came to London in 1997 after her activities as a lawyer, and in particular her championing of women’s rights, put her life in danger. She currently works as an adviser at a refugee centre.
In the exhibition refugees tell their stories in audio interviews and on film. Artwork including paintings and photographs is on display.
Cultures collide and complement each other in the art on show. Hagar and Aosha, an Iranian and an Albanian supported by St Mary Magdalene centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Islington, north London, have created a model of the Anglican church where the project is based, decorated with sequins and complete with tiny minarets.
Surafiel Yacob from Eritrea has created a map of the world, using anti-burglar paint. “Every country paints its borders with rules that make refugees unwelcome,” he says.
Significant objects are also featured.
Fabrice Muamba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who plays for Arsenal football club and England’s youth team, displays his first Arsenal shirt.
Shaho Kadir,a Kurdish refugee who lost his legs during bombing under Saddam Hussein’s regime and is now a wheelchair athlete, loaned his precious marathon medals.
A blanket from Ethiopia that provided comfort for its owner when he had to sleep at Heathrow on his first night in London is displayed.
The Evelyn Oldfield Unit supports refugee community organisations and Belonging is the final culmination of its Refugee Communities History Project.
Refugee communities taking part in the exhibition include Afghans, Africans, Bosnians, Chinese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Iraqis, Kosovars, Kurds, Latin Americans, Roma, Somalis, Turks and Tamils.
The exhibition is a welcome counterblast to often negative portrayals of refugees and asylum seekers.
Common stereotypes – along with the truth behind the myths – compiled by the Refugee Council are included in the exhibition.
A real Home Office letter refusing asylum also features. It is hard to forget the cruel official words:
“You state the men drove you to a place one and a half hours away and told you to run before they opened fire on you. The secretary of state…considers that if the men had intended to kill you they would have done so straight away rather than give you a chance to escape.”
The exhibition ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone who is sceptical about how tough life can be for asylum seekers and refugees in the 21st century.
Belonging is at the Museum of London until 25 February 2007. Admission is free.
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