Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival is back with an important message

Sheffield’s annual Migration Matters Festival is a very special event indeed.
The Calabash  an exploration of West African music, food, art, dance, culture  at last years festival.The Calabash  an exploration of West African music, food, art, dance, culture  at last years festival.
The Calabash an exploration of West African music, food, art, dance, culture at last years festival.

Scheduled to coincide each year with Refugee Week, the festival was established in 2016 and is a celebration of migration, sanctuary and solidarity through music, dance, drama and spoken word. It recognises the invaluable contribution made to the UK’s cultural heritage by successive waves of immigration to this country. And its powerful message of unity and humanity is surely needed now more than ever.

This year, in common with so many other live events, Migration Matters has out of necessity moved online. “Covid-19 hit just as we were about to reveal our line-up and within a few days the situation changed so radically that we felt we needed to discuss with funders and partners what would be the most sensible thing to do,” explains festival director Sam Holland.

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“Our first thought was to postpone the whole programme until 2021, but after conversations with partners and other organisations around the UK working on refugee projects, we realised we almost had a duty to carry on, to offer that alternative platform. This is the right thing to be doing and I am really proud we made that decision. We’ve put together a great programme – technology is not our forte but I am so glad we decided to take the plunge.”

Veiled Voyages, from the Migration Matters Festival in 2019. (Credit: Bispire).Veiled Voyages, from the Migration Matters Festival in 2019. (Credit: Bispire).
Veiled Voyages, from the Migration Matters Festival in 2019. (Credit: Bispire).

The festival, which runs over six days next week, features a broad range of events and interactive workshops including a performance by acclaimed poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, a panel discussion led by former Lord Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid, showcases of artistic talent from the city’s refugee and asylum seeker communities, a series of talks from eminent speakers in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, narratives highlighting experiences of exile and displacement and an immersive adaptation by Paper Finch Theatre of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days for children and families.

And so much more – it is an impressive achievement to have put together such an extensive and ambitious programme. “We only had two months to build a whole new festival and to convert all our real-life venues into online ‘stages’,” says Holland.

“One of the challenges was that digital access in some of the places where refugees are living in the city is not always available. We have very strong links with the refugee charity sector and we have been working together to find solutions to ensure that as many people as possible are connected.”

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In the light of recent events in the US exposing the systemic racism that exists there and in some other parts of the world, an arts festival that is committed to promoting understanding and bringing communities together could not be more urgent.

“Those core values are what the festival is all about,” says Holland. “We are trying to acknowledge what is happening in the world but we also hope the festival can be a symbol of hope for the future.”

Migration Matters Festival, June 15-20. Full line-up and host platform details at

More Festival highlights

While festival-goers this year will not sadly be able to come together in physical spaces, the organisers have worked hard to enable as much interaction with performers and fellow viewers as possible.

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There will be Q&A sessions after many of the events and several workshops that allow participants to enjoy learning a new skill together. These include an African Dance Fusion workshop, Starting to Tell Your Migration Story storytelling workshop and a HipHop Dance workshop.

Theatre performances include Where We Began, a multilingual celebration of personal identity from Stand and Be Counted, the UK’s first Theatre Company of Sanctuary. A combination of storytelling, movement and live music, it features five performers from around the world who challenge existing notions of ‘home’. Stories from Quarantine by Side by Side, a community drama group working with refugees, asylum seekers and British and European people local to Sheffield, presents imaginary characters in their own homes telling stories from quarantine.

Spoken word includes a hip hop showcase with Sheffield poet laureate Otis Mensah and a new podcast Integrate That hosted by London-based Syrian refugee Abdulwahab Tahhan which gives refugees a voice and the opportunity to tell their stories.

The festival is asking for donations which it will share with two Sheffield-based charities supporting refugees and asylum seekers – Lesbian Asylum Support Sheffield and South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice.

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