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August 13 2011

Asylum life

Women refugees fleeing persecution across the world have photographed their daily struggle to survive in Britain. Now their work will go on show in Parliament

The basement of a building near Old Street, in east London, is full: female asylum seekers from all over the world – Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Burundi, Iraq and Cameroon – are getting together. Several English lessons are going on at the same time; the room is a hubbub of noise. This is the meeting place for a small charity, Women for Refugee Women, that helps refugees find their feet, and their voices.

Many of the women here are destitute. They have spent months – years, in some cases – on the streets while fighting the British asylum system. I am visiting because of a powerful exhibition of their photographs, called, with an irony that does not need labouring, "Home Sweet Home" – an attempt to capture what "home" means for them in this country.

Natasha Walter, a writer who founded the charity after meeting a destitute asylum seeker in London, explains that the original intention was to help women with poor English find an alternative way of communicating about the difficulties of their lives in London – every snap worth a thousand words. The idea was also that, as they went off with their loaned cameras, they might enlighten us – and this is what they have done. On the face of it, the photographs seem no more than a neutral record – but it's this that gives them the force of a protest. The cameras cannot lie. The exhibition turns out to be as much about us and our responsibilities as about them – an unnerving education.

It is impossible to look at these images without feeling outraged compassion. They document the most basic struggle to survive; the sense of how little the women have is inescapable. Bare necessities dominate: suitcases are never unpacked (the women are always on the move); a hot water bottle keeps out the cold; meagre groceries – sugar, rice, Ovaltine – are arranged as if for a group portrait. Many of the snaps suggest a lost property department – only it is the owners, not the objects, who are lost.

Walter explains that the show is not about individual asylum cases but about the "importance of letting people know how difficult circumstances are for these women. The vast majority who come to this group have fled serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, ethnic and political persecution. They are traumatised by the loss of their homes and families. And what is so awful about their experiences here is that the struggle to find asylum can traumatise them all over again; they have to negotiate a very complex system, and however real their persecution, they are very often disbelieved."

As failed asylum seekers, the women are moved from place to place and can be made destitute, which means they are left homeless and without any benefits or right to work. "We want to show the impact of an unjust system on their daily lives," Walter says.

In one particularly haunting image, "Shadow", an unlaced patent shoe sets forth on a London pavement. The body of the woman wearing it casts shadows across the stone. The photo comes close to being an invitation: can you imagine stepping into her shoes?

I meet four of the photographers: Evelyne, Madeleine, Esther and Herlinde. They are warm but wary. They are from the Democratic Republic of Congo but were strangers until they met, for the first time, in this room. They are all fleeing ethnic and political persecution, but here they can at least share their experiences – and be pointed in the direction of a lawyer, be part of a network. We converse in an effortful mixture of English and French. We start with London's weather – they laugh, exclaim, shudder – and then move on to food. Herlinde remembers a visit to Margate and being repelled and mystified by English food, while Evelyne's eyes light up as she describes kwanga – the cassava roots that remind her of home. She buys them in Dalston, and has fondly photographed them.

When they talk about their feelings, the laughter ceases. Herlinde describes her head as "like a coconut… it is as if my brain was shaking. They say it is depression". She is the most fluent of the four and has now been granted leave to stay. With assistance, she has written about her feelings: "Being destitute affects your mind, body and soul. I found that when I was destitute, I couldn't plan my life. You feel useless and down; you are not steady, you become like a child."

Madeleine, a queenly woman dressed like an engine driver, in dungarees and a jaunty peaked cap, says: "I am a victim because of my father's blood." She talks, with spirit, about the social challenges of her life, the danger of false friends – and of men in particular: "Men say they want to help you but, actually, they want to abuse you. And then you are left alone with a child. Or you can get diseases such as Aids." She has been here eight years: "My mind is all over the place. I am not at peace. I want to work to help myself – but time is passing."

All the women are eager to work, but as one of them says: "If you try to work, you get arrested." Several have children still in Congo, and the pain of separation is almost unspeakable. "I don't get to talk to my 11-year-old daughter. It is a problem for me," Evelyne says simply. Esther tells me she has three children and then dries up. Herlinde suffers a cruel and chronic homesickness: "I'd be better if I could be in Congo," she says, "but I can't go there."

When they talk about the kindness and hostility they have encountered in London, Madeleine is incredulous at those who believe they would leave home for opportunistic reasons: "Why would we want to come?" she asks. "We only come here to save our lives! We are not coming here for adventure." Herlinde agrees: 'When a woman comes here, fleeing, with a genuine fear, it is because she has a genuine problem. We feel we don't have fair treatment from the Home Office."

Still, they are delighted – fired up – about the exhibition. Madeleine believes it may help people understand their plight and "make this group grow – that would be good for women".

Before I leave, I ask if they might have a go at describing the homes they have left behind. They struggle with this – something more than the language barrier, I imagine, is holding them back. Then Esther, unexpectedly, takes my notebook and painstakingly writes down her home address in Congo. She passes it back to me as if, in another life, I might be able to call in on her there.

"Home Sweet Home" can be seen at the House of Commons from 12 September by prior arrangement (email admin@refugeewomen.co.uk for details) and at Riverside Studios, London W6 from 18 September


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Asylum life: the daily struggles of women refugees – in pictures

Life for an asylum seeker in Britain can be hard, with many left homeless and unable to work as they wait for applications to be processed. Here, women refugees record their environments through photography



June 26 2011

Folkestone Triennial 2011 – review

The town is still depressed and depressing, but this show, with 19 new artists' projects and commissions, has a sense of place

Migration and exile, place and belonging are among the themes of A Million Miles From Home, the second Folkestone Triennial. The depressed resort and port is trying hard to reinvent itself. Maybe it needs to find itself first, and this triennial, with 19 new artists' projects and commissions, provides several kinds of focus on the place itself and its place in the world. Folkestone itself seems hugely supportive of the event, curated by Andrea Schlieker for the second time.

In the National Coastwatch Institution cabin, perched on a cliff above Folkestone, the volunteer guards scan the sea. Mumbai-based collective CAMP recorded the view, the constant traffic plying the Channel, and the volunteers' casual commentary The result is an almost hour-long film recorded over a year. French church spires break the horizon, seen through a telescope. We follow tankers and canoes, ferries and fishing boats – and there's the archbishop of Canterbury, helping out at an archeological dig along the coast, his hair a white, fluffy windsock in the distance. The artists in Mumbai recorded the observations and anecdotes of the volunteers via broadband. It's a case of the watchers watched, and we watch too, following near-collisions out at sea, and blokes hauling up lobster pots. "Lobsters are giant Jurassic insects," someone says. I'd happily stay all day.

The P&O ferries go back and forth, also watched by hopeful migrants waiting on the French coast. Living in awful squalor and makeshift encampments, almost within sight of Folkestone, and desperate to find a new life in the UK, they await their chance on the ferries and trucks passing through the Calais security checks. Danish film-maker Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen's Promised Land, screened in an abandoned beach cafe, follows the plight of a number of Iranian migrants. It's a story of illegal trafficking, dodgy passports, hope and fantasy, ingenuity and yearning. Promised Land makes me will the illegal migrants to get through.

But what will they find if they make it to Folkestone? A horrible monster – part camel, part carp's skeleton, part rotten idea – by Charles Avery, mouldering on the floor of the public library; a shop displaying gorgeous, folkloric village peasant-wear from Kosovo, collected by Erzen Shkololli in his homeland; an overcomplicated and impenetrably dark and confusing installation following a day's schooling in Israel, in a suite of rooms next to Boots the chemist. But Folkestone is still Folkestone, Asda is still vile, and Debenhams as dreary as ever. I know, because I went in search of new trousers there, after floundering in the harbour mud at low tide while looking at the Brazilian boat figureheads mounted on tall posts by artist Tonico Lemos Auad.

The clock above Debenhams entrance has been changed, one of 10 around the town that Scottish artist Ruth Ewan has replaced, to tell French revolutionary time – an unworkable scheme, introduced in 1793, to decimalise the time and ditch the Gregorian calendar. Each day lasted 10 hours, of 100 minutes each. The decimal clock makes you feel out of whack, just as it threw France into confusion until it was abandoned at the end of 1805. It would cause havoc to shipping, birthdays, and assignations on Folkestone's deliciously named Rendezvous Street.

Martin Creed's exhilarating recording of a string quartet, whose ascending notes rise with us in the water-powered Victorian lift taking us from sea level to the grassy clifftop on the Leas, is lovely. Descend and the notes descend with you. On the beach below, a decomissioned 16th-century church bell, suspended on a wire 20 metres above the beach, tolls among the gulls in the huge sky. London-based Norwegian artist AK Dolven has given the bell a new clapper and a new voice. She has done this before, in Oslo. It's the best thing I've seen herNorwegian artist AK Dolven do. The same is true of Hew Locke's motley flotilla of model boats – some of which he built, others he bought on eBay – hanging overhead in the nave in the ancient church above the town. The boats jostle each other in the air, all facing the altar. It has a sense of rightness that I haven't found before in Locke's work.

A sense of place is important in shows like this. The real focus of Cristina Iglesias's Towards the Sound of Wilderness is one of Folkestone's Martello towers, built to watch for a Napoleonic invasion that never came. What Iglesias has created is another looking post, an observation platform overhanging a weed-choked moat in which the ivy-covered and hidden Martello tower stands, inhabited only by birds. The point is the magical, hidden place itself, suddenly revealed. Meanwhile, Cornelia Parker's Folkestone Mermaid, a naked bronze life-cast of a local resident by the beach, looks out across the Channel, emulating Copenhagen's Little Mermaid. Maybe she dreams of migrating. I just wish she'd go away.

Rating: 4/5


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April 26 2011

Deutsche Börse prize goes to chronicler of displaced people

Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg has documented refugees and immigrants in across the world since 1983

Jim Goldberg has won this year's £30,000 Deutsche Börse prize for photography, in a ceremony hosted by the Photographers' Gallery in London.

The Magnum photographer, who has documented the experiences of refugees, immigrants and displaced people from Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe since 1983 in a project titled Open See, triumphed over a shortlist that included fine art photographer Thomas Demand, whom many insiders considered the favourite. Goldberg, who lives in San Francisco, and won the 2007 Cartier- Bresson Prize for an earlier version of the same project, describes himself as a documentary storyteller.

Open See was shown to great acclaim at the Photographers' Gallery last year. It features polaroids, video stills, found images and hand-written text often using the words of his subjects.

The chair of the jury, Brett Rogers, praised Goldberg's "timely and inventive approach to documentary practice … allowing these individuals to tell their own stories."


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May 05 2010

Why is the US mocking our 'Harry Potter' election? | Hadley Freeman

British voters and politicians have been treated to quite extraordinary levels of condescension from American commentators

There have been many irritating elements to this election, not least the unignorable, looming realisation that this country's finances are about to be put in the hands of a man whose only qualification in the study of money seems to be that his wallpaper-designing family has a lot of it.

But perhaps most trying of all has been the degree of curious condescension British voters and politicians have been treated to from American commentators: "America's Deadbeat Older Brother, the United Kingdom, is holding an election for Best Wizard! Or Prime Minister, or something," snarked the reliably snarky website Gawker. Only four weeks long! No smear campaigns! And those cute accents!

Even Saint Jon Stewart slipped into this all-too-easy mode on The Daily Show last week, when he amusingly yet not entirely fairly managed to reduce the UK election down to a little squabble about bus passes. "You all know you used to rule the subcontinent, you do know that?" he asked, while unscrewing a salt shaker and slicing up some lemons.

To characterise America as the Champions League and England as the Johnstone's Paint Trophy final suits both American self-aggrandisement and British self-deprecation, and is an easy source of lazy laughs. It's the Grumpy Old Nations approach to international relations, and as someone who is lucky enough to pay taxes in both the UK and US, I try to avoid this cheesy stance. However, there are times when it's hard not to think that, yup, we Americans sure do things bigger and better

Last week, something happened in Rochdale that you may have heard about. A pensioner demanded that Gordon Brown inform her of the origins of eastern Europeans, Brown muttered in his car that she was "bigoted", the pensioner huffed to the Mail on Sunday (reportedly for £80,000) that she was more outraged that he referred to her as a "woman" than a "bigot", and the UK media dubbed this ripple in a teacup "Bigotgate". You want Bigotgate? I'll show you Bigotgate.

The same week that the UK rightwing press was crowing that Brown's "gaffe" proved that "immigration is this country's most incendiary issue", America was facing the prospect of it being illegal to not be, if not racist, then let's say race-ish, in one of its states, Arizona. Read that again, slowly.

Thanks to the passing of a law – known officially as SB1070, and unofficially as "nazism" by a Cardinal Roger M Mahony, as quoted in the New York Times – police are now not only required to demand documents from anyone of whom they are "reasonably suspicious", but Arizona citizens can sue the police if they think they have failed to harass a "suspicious looking" person.

As several politicians, Democrat and Republican, have pointed out, this sounds distinctly like racial profiling. Arizona's governor Jan Brewer has denied this, but has failed to specify quite what kind of looks count as "suspicious". And Gawker's accusation on Monday that the Arizona State Senate majority leader and proponent of SB1070, Chuck Grey, was following not one but two white supremacist groups on Twitter doesn't exactly help Brewer's claim. Nor – as Frank Rich pointed out in last Sunday's New York Times – did Rush Limbaugh's recent linking of the birther movement and SB1070 ("I can understand Obama being touchy on the subject of producing your papers. Maybe he's afraid somebody's going to ask him for his." Um, if memory serves, they did, Rush and he produced them). Not that Brewer seems to give a damn what people think.

If I have failed to convey the true nature of this bill, maybe this will help: the Bush family finds it offensive. Perhaps SB1070's supporters should use that as a tagline: "SB1070: the law that's so rightwing, it makes the Bushes look moderate."

One person who does like it, though, is the politician formerly known as Maverick John McCain. Again, this is an example of America doing things on a much larger scale than the UK. If you think Labour has lost its moral compass over the past 10 years, meet John McCain, the man who three years ago said that America needed to find a "humane, moral" way to deal with illegal immigrants. Two weeks ago he told – Fox News, who else? – that these "illegals" are "intentionally causing accidents on the freeway", a statement that manages to make querying where eastern Europeans flock from sound intelligent.

The setting for McCain's announcement is telling. The engine that has moved America's Republican party to the right of the Bushes has been Fox News, home of Glenn "Obama's a racist" Beck and Bill "I just wish hurricane Katrina had hit the UN" O'Reilly.

Where America has highly partisan TV and neutral broadsheet newspapers, Britain takes the opposite approach, and Fox News's equivalent in this country is not, surprisingly, a Murdoch product but the Daily Mail. There are many, many complaints one can make about the Mail but, so far, the Conservative party has managed to resist having its policies dictated by it (it remains to be seen for how long Cameron resists being dictated to by Murdoch), and, reluctant as I am to defend the Mail, at least that paper speaks out explicity against the BNP – unlike Fox News which actively champions looney pockets such as the Tea Party movement.

So yes, Britain, we Americans may recently have been mocking the "laughable tameness" of your political system and election. We might make jokes about the election being decided by Harry Potter's sorting hat. But the truth is, we're just jealous.


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March 16 2010

Artists and academics regularly refused UK entry, say campaigners

Visa system is preventing overseas professionals from promoting or selling their work, according to a dossier of cases

Artists, authors and academics from overseas are regularly being refused permission to enter the UK under the government's points-based visa system, according to a dossier of cases to be presented to Downing Street tomorrow.

Writers have been prevented from attending their book launches, painters deported for carrying their own works and a Pakistani band banned from attending the World Pipe Band championship in Glasgow, according to the civil rights group, Manifesto Club.

A petition opposing the visa restrictions is to be handed into the prime minister's office tomorrow. It has been signed by prominent figures, such as the sculptor Antony Gormley, the director of the National theatre, Nicholas Hytner, the lawyer Lady Kennedy and the poet Blake Morrison, as well as 10,000 others.

An accompanying dossier, naming those turned away over the past year, records their anger and disappointment. "This is an account of talent stopped at our borders, which has left the country all the poorer," the petition says.

It adds: "This is a small selection of the thousands who have had to endure the absurd stringencies of the UK Border Agency since the points-based visa system was introduced. We call not for special treatment for these individuals, but the overturning of the system as a whole."

Among cases documented are that of the Chinese artist Huang Xu, who was refused a visa to attend the opening of his exhibition at the October gallery in London and the South African illustrator, Nikhil Singh, who was unable to attend his own book launch.

UK Border Agency official Jeremy Oppenheim said: "We welcome the contribution of creative artists, but it's important everyone plays by the rules."

The Home Office said that it had worked closely with the arts community in developing new regulations.


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