“Everything has a story – a good writer asks lots of questions”. This powerfully simple advice from poet Laila Sumpton has guided our refugee friends at the Jesuit Refugee Service this summer, as they’ve taken part in the new JRS ‘Open Writing Space’. Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus, we have seen a huge shift in the way we accompany and serve our refugee friends at JRS, and many of the joyful and vibrant activities we offered in person at our centre – such as the community kitchen, and prayer groups – had to move online. Activities coordinator Dallya has kept up momentum with her boundless positivity which inspires many of our friends: “During the lockdown period, continuing and introducing new activities has played a huge role with our refugee friends, as it’s helped them to continue to find different platforms in order to express their feelings, share their experiences, stories and have a helping service at hand.”
Help Dallya to continue our vibrant refugee-led activities, like the JRS Community Kitchen…
I was privileged to hear some of these experiences and stories as I joined Dallya, and poet and facilitator Laila Sumpton for six weeks at the new JRS ‘Open Writing Space’ which took place this summer over Zoom. “The writers bring together many stories and languages, and together we support each other’s writing journeys and encourage each other’s creativity” Laila shared. “It is so important that we make space for the sometimes hidden experiences, and we all have so much to learn from people who have lived between different cultures.”
While they may come from many different backgrounds and cultures, our refugee friends have all found an opportunity to express themselves freely – their fears, and hopes and dreams – through poetry, story writing, and exercises in imagination so expertly led by Laila. Their reasons for joining the group vary. One of our refugee friends who helped lead activities during the sessions told me: “the JRS as a charity and community has consistently provided me with so much support, both prior and during this pandemic. So, when an offer to act as a volunteer in the Open Writing Space was made, I felt honoured and never hesitated at such an opportunity to learn, while also helping my friends learn as well.”
Han, another refugee friend who took part, told me: ‘‘I have always had the passion for writing. I joined the open writing space because I value my time and don’t mind sharing my thoughts. I like to keep myself occupied by learning and exploring the immense world of knowledge.” This sense of curiosity and love of writing united many of our friends in the group and it was a pleasure to see their confidence as writers flourish.
Each weekly, hour-long session, provided a safe and confidential space for our friends to plan and write creatively, sharing the results of their various ‘homework’ tasks out loud, under the guidance of Laila. One particularly inspiring exercise was the ‘Recipe Poems’ where participants imagined aspects of their lives and their loved ones – a favourite sound, or smell – and wrote them as ingredients in a recipe of themselves. One refugee friend wrote:
‘Take a 10 grams of warm blue sky,
Put it in the pan
And add 20 millimetres of birds singing freely.
You can pour in a tablespoon of waterfall
Then mix it with lovely cold Ice cream.’
Commenting on her experience of the sessions, this refugee writer said: “I love writing, especially poems. I feel proud to share my work and listen to [other participants] comment. I learn more ideas from others. It helps me to feel more relaxed and happier. […] I think being creative in this way is important because it helps you to think out of the box, gives you uniqueness and a great effect of the audience.”
Han was also encouraged by the creativity of the sessions: “[The open writing space] has reignited my passions which I always wanted to pursue. [It’s] helped me engage with the real world [and] has allowed me to express my ideas or views . There’s build up from the subject or one question and the outcome is crafted from my recollection of experiences.”.
Our refugee friend who volunteered as a mentor found there were multiple personal benefits from reflecting upon and sharing each other’s experiences in this way: “Over the past six weeks while we met as a group online, I believe I have discovered a hidden talent within me as a potential “writer” and story teller. Being able to generate plausible storylines out of pictures or simple, everyday objects. So, these sessions have meant a rediscovery of myself while also offering the chance to look beyond the current doom and gloom that the pandemic brought with it, especially for asylum seekers struggling under the double whammy of an ongoing pandemic and dealing with a deliberately cruel government, all at once!”
He was uplifted by the sense of hope that could be found in his own work, and the work of others:
“I must confess that I found it surprising how hopeful you can suddenly feel after discovering that indeed the promise of a better tomorrow can still be achieved by expressing yourself more, through creative writing. I feel the need to recommend creative writing as another form of therapy which provides the opportunity for self-worth and awareness, but also acts as a counter to certain forms of depression or self-doubt.”
For Han, there was joy to be found in the interactive, shared space itself, as she felt a sense of common ground in “the way people can interact and bring good output from the session. Respect was very important to us. Though I may not agree with others opinions, none of us intervened in others space or time”
I have witnessed how the Open Writing Space has been a vessel for self-exploration, and expression among our refugee friends, bringing to the forefront memories of home, hopes for the future and a profound sense of identity, which can so easily be lost amongst those who are navigating a cruel and punishing asylum system here in the UK. I share my refugee friends’ hopes that we can continue a creative writing space at JRS in future. It is through the curiosity and creativity of our refugee writers that we are constantly reminded everybody has an important story to share.
Jo Biernat is Editorial Communications Assistant at JRS.
Without your generous support and donations, we could not have created the Open Writing Space for our refugee friends. Anything you can give today will help us empower refugees through creativity, and community building.
This article was published in the winter edition of ‘Jesuit & Friends’ magazine. You can read the original article, and the magazine in full here