Global Development Institute Blog

This blog originally appeared on the Manchester Migration Lab website

Blog by Dr Ghalia Sarmani, Head of Arabic Languages, Al Nimra Qur’an School, Manchester

Earlier this month I attended the ‘World on the Move; Migration, Societies and Change’ conference hosted by the University of Manchester’s Migration Lab. The two-and-a-half day conference was rich in providing a ground for intellectual debate, and for developing further research projects.

On the third day of the conference; I attended a workshop titled ‘From Syria to Gateshead. The project is part of a larger, cross-national participatory arts-based study of belonging among resettled Syrian refugee youth in regional cities in Australia and the UK. This workshop characteristics music works and visual art created by resettled refugee-background, mainly young Syrians in Gateshead. Artworks emerged out of a participatory arts-based study conducted by Durham University, GemArts, and Gateshead Council and researcher and project coordinator is Dr Caitlin Nunn, Durham University.

The workshop involves fourteen Syrians aged between 15 and 24 – nine of them presented at the conference. At the start of the workshop participants performed music that they created using drums, and then introduced themselves and shared their own experiences as forced migrants. They lived in Syria in the beginning of the crisis. Then they addressed their need to leave with their parents and siblings to a safe neighbourhood. Most of them migrated from Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, their final destination was the UK. Their journey will remain the best compared to other Syrians who suffered in refugee camps or in death boats to seek a life in dignity.

All participants in the workshop have lived in Gateshead for between three and fifteen month. Then they arrived to the UK via the UNHCR resettlement program. They were so grateful to the UN to come to the UK and they perceived the service and the support that they received in the UK was much better than other countries. They focussed on their willing to offer their best by learning and working very hard to give back to the UK for bringing them to a safe place. They want to learn English to thank all people who helped and supported them since their arrival.

They highlighted how they feel to be ‘resettled’ in a new place where they do not know anything about its language, culture and religion. It is so hard for them to communicate with their neighbours. One of them mentioned that he wanted to tell his neighbour that ‘we are not harmful humans. We are looking for peace everywhere we go’ but the language barrier prevented him. He found the smile is the language that everyone can understand as the art they produced in the project. Although they started their new/safe life in the UK, they are still worried about their relatives/beloved inside Syria. When they receive any call from Syria they expect that bad news has happened. During the call they can still hear the bombs going off there.

Throughout the workshop, each one of them discussed the artworks and music they created as part of the project. I really enjoyed the ‘Most beautiful days’ song in Arabic which is written by Joy*. She expressed her feeling about good days she spent in a good place, where she learnt and spent a good time.

Hakim; who managed to get his degree in sociology from Egypt, represented in this artwork the case that most of Syrian cities ended up with because of the crisis. Destroyed building and blood are everywhere, he doesn’t want any country to be in the same situation. However, no matter for Hakim all difficulties, he has a mission of going back to Syria.

Hassan and Amir wrote a song ‘Syria’. They described Syria as their mother, and Aleppo as their blood. They mentioned how they suffered being away from their country, how their childhood was lost in front of their eyes, how some children like them drowned in the sea, only wanting to reach the shore. At the end, they begged life to stop making them sad, and to return them to their country.

Indeed attending this workshop was so emotional for me personally being a Syrian sociologist. I shared with the participants the same language, culture and suffering. I was able to hear and understand their words straight away without the interpreter’s assistance, in which I found great value. I understood their emotions through their voice vibrations and tone and through the deep Arabic words that they used.

Generally, the workshop was reflecting the role of art more broadly as a way of belonging in the resettlement context. The images that the participants created during the project helped to illustrate their experiences of non/belonging. Belonging is an essential need for every person regardless the age or gender. The impact of non/belonging can have significant emotional and practical outcomes for refugees, including on their emotions, aspirations, health and wellbeing. However, to ‘resettle’ is a big change with different challenges for participants. The main advantage is to build their confidence to communicate with the wider society and to speak up in front of the audience. They reinforced the importance of this project for refugee camps.

*all names of participants have been anonymised.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.