It’s Refugee Week later this month, running from June 20-26, and perhaps this year more than most – as the nation decides on its European future – it is a time to reflect on our common humanity and what unites us rather than what separates us.
One of those is, of course, the arts. The main focus of Refugee Week in the UK is on arts, cultural and educational events celebrating the contribution of refugees to our society, with the aim of creating a better understanding between communities. The arts are in a unique position to help in this. Not only do they give voice, through plays, films, visual artworks and books, to the stories of those in flight but they also provide solace and a place of safety to those who have been through traumatic experiences.
The West Yorkshire Playhouse, as the country’s first theatre of sanctuary, continues to do invaluable work with refugees and asylum seekers giving them the opportunity to share their stories through regular workshops.
And Halifax’s 1830 gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of artworks on the theme of freedom, created by refugees recently arrived in Calderdale.
A number of charities working with refugees and asylum seekers are using bibliotherapy to help their clients make sense of their own experiences through reading. The books they are ‘prescribed’ might not be directly connected to what they have been through, in terms of situation, content or setting, rather it is about finding a theme that resonates – or even just a complete escape. As far back as the end of the 19th century, Freud was using literature during psychoanalysis and after the First World War, traumatised soldiers were often prescribed a course of reading – Jane Austen was thought to be particularly beneficial.
There are plenty of psychological studies that point to fiction readers being more empathetic. Empathy is a key point – and it applies to all art forms. By engaging with art we are able to enter into someone else’s vision of the world and that leads to greater understanding. This is demonstrated perfectly by The Nile Project – a unique musical collaboration which arrives in Bradford next week for its European premiere as part of the Yorkshire Festival. It not only brings together musicians from along the river Nile to share their diverse musical heritage but also raises awareness in the wider world about the water issues facing people living in the region. As George Eliot so eloquently put it “art is... a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bound of our personal lot.”