Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival returns next week to coincide with Refugee Week - we talk to festival director Sam Holland

Poet Benjamin Zephaniah will be appearing at Sheffield's Migration Matters festival.
Poet Benjamin Zephaniah will be appearing at Sheffield's Migration Matters festival.
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Although it has been running since 2016, this year’s Migration Matters festival feels more urgent than ever.

In the three years since it was established in Sheffield, the UK’s first City of Sanctuary, the geo-political landscape, particularly in Europe and America, has changed quite significantly with a noticeable shift towards the right and its anti-immigration ideology. So an arts festival celebrating the value and importance of migration couldn’t be more relevant or timely.

The contribution of refugees and asylum seekers to the cultural life of the country is huge – and this is Migration Matters’ core message.

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“The festival was originally born out of a collective concern from myself and a few collaborators in Sheffield, in particular Theatre Deli, about the backlash from the right wing towards the refugee crisis,” says festival director Sam Holland.

“We noticed the difference in response compared to say 20 years ago in terms of offering support to those vulnerable groups. The arts can help bring about social change and we felt we wanted to showcase the talents of refugees and asylum seekers so that they would be seen as artists, but mainly as people.”

Programmed to coincide with Refugee Week and to overlap with its theme for 2019 which is ‘You, Me and Those Who Came Before’, Migration Matters will this year feature over 60 events all designed to promote understanding and to bring communities together.

Sleeping giants at large in Sheffield factory

“We have grown the festival year on year to the point where we are now attracting quite mainstream figures who have been outspoken about the issues surrounding migration,” says Holland. One of those is poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah who will be performing with his band The Revolutionary Minds and British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey. Other highlights include a conversation between Nikesh Shukla, writer and editor of the award-winning The Good Immigrant, and newly elected MEP and former Lord Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid talking about Brexit Britain and their experiences of the ‘hostile environment.’ “There is so much uncertainty around Brexit which is causing a lot of anxiety and some people seeing immigration as the big problem rather than any other issues at play,” says Holland. “The big motivation for us is always to reflect all the different groupings and the forms of migration into the city and how they have shaped it and enriched it.” Theatre, music, dance, film, spoken word, talks and workshops are all on offer in a diverse and wide-ranging programme of events. “The idea is to give an equal platform to local, national and international artists,” says Holland. “So we have everything from a Lebanese puppet theatre to a Sheffield-based intercultural drama group called Side by Side made up of local actors and refugees and asylum seekers.” The opening night party promises to be a blast, bringing together music and dance acts from across Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. “The festival is a positive response to all the divisions there are around us today,” says Holland. “So it’s great to see the widespread support it gets in the city.”

June 14-22. For details visit migrationmattersfestival.co.uk