For some refugees, art can make all the difference
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For some refugees, art can make all the difference

Stories/155 , Issues/Refugees , Issues/Arts & Culture
Central Station, Haymarket NSW 2000, Australia
9th Jan 2018
For some refugees, art can make all the difference
Refugee artists challenge the dominant narratives that depict them in a negative and dehumanising light.
“I cannot find peace in my heart because I am a criminal. That is the name you have given me.”

These are the words of S. Nagaveeran, or Ravi as he is better known, a refugee poet and artist whose works tell the story of a man who has borne witness to both extremes of humanity – a man who has braved tumultuous seas and a multitude of hells. The writings and drawings from Ravi’s book From Hell to Hell reflect his lived experiences of suffering, dashed hopes, and his cry to be seen as a human being rather than a political pawn.

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Pictured: An extract from Ravi's From Hell To Hell.

In early 2017, The QUO caught up with Ravi following his release from Nauru on a bridging visa. This was after a decade of imprisonment in his native Sri Lanka and detention in Australia due to the No Advantage refugee policy.

Today, I sit with Ravi and his friends outside a café near Central Station. I ask him about his journey to Australia.

“I got on a boat in 2012, sometime around August. It was a 22-day journey and I never thought it was going to be that hard. We were stranded for two days and we never saw any boats or anyone to help us in the water. The last four days, we didn’t have enough water or food. We just drank salty water.”

“The last 6 days,” says his friend Nava.

“The last 6 days, sorry. He’s got a good memory.”

Nava is Ravi’s neighbour from back home.

“Yeah, he’s my neighbour. We’ve known each other for more than 20 years. He had a good grocery store and my mum always went to his store.”

Ravi and Nava fled Sri Lanka together because of the government’s persecution of ethnic Tamils following the brutal civil war.

“We carried each other and we carried 58 people on one boat… We finally made it to Cocos Island and then they changed the policy and sent us to Nauru, where everyone was completely destroyed. I brought lots of green seeds to plant here and it’s all gone…”

Despite the pain of his story, Ravi laughs and tries to paint his words with a smile. I ask him about Nauru, where he was detained for more than three years. His tone becomes serious.

“You know, I’m not calling Nauru and Manus detention centres. I’m calling them hell and human dumping grounds. In Nauru and Manus, we can’t build any hopes and dreams because we can’t even imagine if there’s going to be a future.”

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Pictured: An extract from Ravi's From Hell To Hell.

For some refugees, art can make all the difference. It is a means of self-expression that allows them to deal with their traumatic experiences and reclaim their personal agency. It is a powerful force that empowers them to tell their own stories and challenge the dominant narratives that depict them in a negative and dehumanising light.

That is how art exhibitions like The Invisible are born. Curated by refugee artist and journalist Abdul Karim Hekmat, The Invisible was a provocative and moving exhibition that ran from 3 October – 24 November 2017 in UTS Gallery. It exclusively showcased the works of refugee artists from Kurdish and Hazara backgrounds whose ‘invisibility’ is rendered visible through thought-provoking artworks that offer an intimate glimpse into their experiences of geographical and personal displacement.

There is Khadim Ali’s elaborate painting of a group of horned demons arriving by boat; Avan Anwar’s transformation of Kurdish poetry into unrecognisable, physical forms; Abdul Karim Hekmat’s video installation of interviews with Nauru refugees; Rushdi Anwar’s reconstruction of a UNHCR tent covered with the names of refugee children; Elyas Alavi’s heartfelt video requiem for Mohammed Jan, a 14-year-old boy killed in a bombing at a Hazara protest in Kabul.

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Pictured: The Invisible, installation view, 2017, photo credit: David Lawrey.

I sit down with Abdul himself at UTS, where he is currently a PhD candidate. He tells me about the origins of The Invisible and his artistic practice.

“I came here when I was about 20-years-old. I found myself disconnected from my language and culture, but I had to adapt to a new culture and language. I thought I could share through visual art something I couldn’t express through words. It was much more powerful.

“We only think of displacement as someone who is geographically displaced, but how about when you lose your language, culture, which is part of your identity? And once you’ve lost that, you can’t express that trauma in another language, you cannot communicate that feeling.”

Because some refugees find they can no longer express themselves as they did in their former language, they turn to art as a communication tool that bridges the gap between their native voice and their adopted voice; the borders between refugees and asylum seekers, and Australian citizens.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions around refugees and asylum seekers and I think what is actually missing is a narrative of the lived experience of people who come as refugees and a discourse that modernises these voices.”

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Pictured: Abdul Karim Hekmat's "Nauru Refugee Voices", 2017, photo credit: David Lawrey.

Abdul says these misconceptions arise from the actions of politicians, who dehumanise refugees through creating a dominant narrative.

“What the politician does is, they have to make them inhuman to pursue policy that is in line with their own political advantage. This has become a global pattern now and politicians are being elected because of the fear of migrants and refugees, for example, in the election of Drumpf.

“People perceive refugees as a demonised figure, but a refugee is like everyone else. They also have a language, a history, a rich culture, which you can’t really see.

“It’s important to fill that vacuum of refugee voices being silenced and suppressed. Each artist who was involved, they are part of a bigger story and they tell a story that nobody else could. It’s really powerful to have people to come and listen and understand. Most of the time, they hear about it from the media and headline stories, but The Invisible takes people beyond that. It’s also to create understanding for people. Refugees are not just the headline stories, they are people with many stories and many voices.”

Abdul believes in the personal agency of refugees who use art to tell their stories and achieve freedom.

“If you look at the history of marginalised groups, it’s only their own self determination that made them reach equality.”

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Pictured: Khadim Ali's Untitled from The Arrivals series, 2016, photo credit: David Lawrey.

For Ravi, it is the creative outlet of poetry and art that offer him solace and a chance to make a difference: “Pen and paper are the most powerful weapons to fight against politics and against anxiety and depression.”

“I got motivation from this government to become a poet… I couldn’t find anyone to talk to and share my feelings – English is my third language. But then Peter Dutton said asylum seekers and refugees come here, they can’t speak English, they steal Australians’ jobs. It’s not true. I wanted to do something in his language, so I started writing poems in English.

“It’s not easy to share your experience and tell your story. It’s like re-opening your wounds, but still I’m happy because I’m sharing that with people in Australia and opening their mind and eyes. That will be a key to someone’s freedom.”

I ask Ravi what’s next for him. He lights up when he speaks about the second book he’s writing and his two projects: Hidden Voices, a platform for writers in detention centres, and Food for Thought, an Australia-wide event where he “cooks some yum Sri Lankan food” and shares his stories with attendees because “good food always brings people together.” He tells me he’s not worried about his temporary bridging visa because he doesn’t know what will happen.

Refugees like Ravi and Nava are the lucky ones. According to the Australian Border Force’s monthly report, as of 30 November 2017, there are 334 people still detained on Nauru, some of whom have been encouraged to cut ties with their families to be resettled in the US.

When it comes to the Manus detention centre, the Australian Border Force reiterates that it was “closed on 31 October 2017” in its report. This is skirting around the truth of the government’s abandonment of 606 men (at the time), who were left with no food, water, electricity or medication and essentially told to move to their new accommodation, which is allegedly “unfinished and uninhabitable”, or face forced eviction. In late November, the government confirmed the removal of the remaining 328 refugees, who had barricaded themselves inside the closed centre for three weeks without basic necessities, to the town of Lorengau on Manus Island, where they face the threat of violence.

That is why our collective action as concerned citizens and fellow human beings is so important. What we choose to do now and how we respond to the current plight of asylum seekers can make a difference.

I spoke to Jana Favero, the Director of Advocacy and Campaigns of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), which openly advocates for an end to detention and offshore processing, about the crisis on Manus and what we can do to help. Ms Favero was one of three ASRC staff who made the trip to Manus in November, which culminated in their shocking report on the conditions there.

“Since we returned, the conditions facing the men on Manus have continued to significantly deteriorate… Despite these unimaginable challenges, the men are determined, strong, resourceful, kind and resilient. They did not have enough to eat each day, but insisted on making us tea and offering what little they had when we were there.

“We are on the wrong side of humanity and must fight for the freedom, safety and dignity for all people seeking asylum… The best way for people to have their voices heard is to speak up - call the Prime Minister, call local radio, talk to your neighbours and family and friends about our treatment of people seeking asylum. We know our politicians will not show leadership or compassion on this issue, so we need to rely on community power to demand a change.”

For Ravi, change is only possible once Australians become more engaged with issues of displacement and open themselves to the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees - without have their views coloured by the negative rhetoric enforced by the government and conservative media.

“It might take some time, but give refugees and asylum seekers time and they will make this a beautiful country. There are lots of talented people in Australian detention centres: artists, writers, doctors, nurses. Give them the chance to show their talent.

“We are people just like you. You’re my friend, you’re my neighbour. We can make a great Australia.”

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Pictured: An extract from Ravi's From Hell To Hell.
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Pictured: The Invisible, installation view, 2017, photo credit: David Lawrey.

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