The launch of the collaborative project “You can see me but I don’t exist” between refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and photographer Alan Gignoux took place across the UK over the past few weeks; with the London launches timed for Refugee Week. The project was initially inspired by an encounter between Alan and a young man in Sweden, who shared with Alan “I feel like I’ve been in Limbo. I feel like you can see me but I don’t really exist – I wasn’t allowed to work, I just had to wait.”
This experience is not unique, and is shared with thousands of people across Europe. Alan partnerered with JRS UK on a camera obscura photography project, visualising the feeling of being seen but not exisiting. The project grew to include poetry alongside photography, and partners included Stories of Hope and Home and Baobab Women’s Project in Birmingham, and Everything Human Rights in Manchester.
The launch events are a huge celebration of colleaborative work over the past two years, with JRS being involved in Stratford Library and the Photographer’s gallery. Victoria and Dallya share a rundown of the highlights of the two events, and how refugee friends felt on the night.
Stratford Library Launch
The Launch event at Stratford Library was an excellent start to JRS’ Refugee Week celebrations. Refugee friends spent the afternoon rehearsing for their first public performanace of the poetry, and one performer described: “I have stage fright…but tonight I’m going to challenge that”. Eight refugee friends performed poetry that evening, surrounded by the photography exhibited on the walls of the Library.
After Alan introduced the project and the inspiration behind it, Laila Sumpton, poet and long term collaborator with JRS, shared a little about the experience of the writing project which crafted poems in response to the photographs; poems which set out to share the power of words, share the refugee lived experience, and dispel myths about asylum.
One by one, refugee friends stood up and performed their poems. Before speaking, each refugee friend introduced what inspired their poem. Some were written individually, others were collaborative pieces reflecting the experiences of many. Some refugee friends performed their own poems, others the poems of refugee friends who could not attend the event.
Refugee friends’ voices and the breadth of their experiences really shone through the poems – some were funny, others were sad and reflective, others determined and hopeful. The audience listened, captivated by these readings, whilst the words and photographs of so many other asylum seekers awaiting recognition hung on the walls around us.
The poem you are about to hear is about a stagnant situation, where you’re in a dilemma. When you’re at a crossroads.
Where will I turn to? Is it right? Is it left? Front? Or Back?
This is a place where refugees and migrants find themselves:
The final poem was performed collectively by the group, bringing to life the sounds and voices of a street market. Everyone in the audience was made a part of the performance, enthusiastically taking part in the grocer’s cry of “a pound a bowl” at the close of every stanza.
With that, the event came to a close, with time for visitors to wander around the exhibition and look at the poems and photographs side by side. Before leaving the event, the refugee friend who had stage fright a the beginning shared: “I thought it went well – I stuttered a little bit…But next time? Next time I’ll be even better”.
The first published work of JRS UK’s Open Writing Space, facilitated by Laila Sumpton, features poetry and prose written by eight refugee friends.
The volume explores themes including lockdown, the meaning of ‘home’, the climate emergency, and peace and is available to buy from the JRS Refugee Gifts Shop. All proceeds go to support the work of JRS UK.
Performing at the Photographer’s Gallery
The experience of the first performance clearly emboldened the confidence of refugee friends for the Friday evening celebration at the Photographer’s Gallery in Central London. This was a “Book Launch in an Exhibition”, and a light, festive feel permeated the group, who were accompanied by others from Birmingham and Manchester. Once again, the poetry was raw and powerful, but also shot through with hope and determination.
It was a warm, sunny evening and the large windows were opened onto the street, as passers-by stopped to listen, consecutive groups gathered throughout the performances. A particular injection of joy came from a Zimbabwean band who played their home-made marimba, sang and danced with bells on their feet and delighted the entire company – including the passers-by who felt drawn in!
Dallya, JRS Refugees Activities Coordinator, congratulated refugee friends on their remarkable poems.
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to show the world your voice. No one can take your voice away from you, so keep writing, keep singing and keep showing everyone how great you are.
Events like these are remarkable – but should be commonplace! It was a wonderful demonstration of the creativity, intelligence and resilience of people we accompany, and of the power of collaboration.
There was a real feeling of awe in the room as the final line of one of the poems was read: “our secret power is our thoughts”. This rung true, and I hope inspires us all to keep working towards a world where refugee friends’ voices and thoughts are not secret but are at the centre of how the UK responds to those seeking sanctuary.