Discover the stories of refugees living in London at this small exhibition at Proud Central. Co-curated by actress and activist Juliet Stevenson and refugee employment charity, Breaking Barriers the show features photographs and stories about the challenges of integration and the importance of work. Here we share two stories out of the total 10 in the exhibition, we urge you to visit:
Interview by Marsha Glenn; words by Batseba
Portrait by Jo Metson Scott
The earrings were a gift from my Mum. It was 2014 and we hadn’t seen each other for years, since I left Eritrea. When she was finally able to get a tourist visa to Italy, I took three months off and we spent the summer together travelling Europe. She bought the earrings during one of her trips to the artisanal markets in Milan and when she excitedly handed me the box and I opened them, I began to tear up. One earring was a cage, the other a bluebird perched outside the cage. I knew immediately what they signified.
One of my favourite poems is I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It is a poem I loved reading in Eritrea and still love to this day. In the beginning, reading the poem would be cathartic for me, even though Maya was writing about the African American experience, she could have been writing about the Eritrean one as well. Now, even though I am free of the literal cages and bars imposed by tyranny, I still strive to live the life of the free bird. Cages are not always literal, often they are abstract yet equally as powerful, imposed by systems, societal impositions, expectations and prejudices. Cages can be made by past experiences, past traumas, or can even be imposed upon oneself by adopting limiting thoughts, behaviours and beliefs. The earrings remind me to never let myself be caged in, to always strive to be the Blue bird, to be free.
Before coming to the UK, I worked in Eritrean media for almost eight years. Back home being a journalist is challenging and for me it became perilous. I came to the UK as an asylum seeker in 2011, and for the first couple of years I lived in Sheffield, settling into my new life in Britain. In 2015 I decided to move to London both to experience this great city and to pursue my dream of establishing myself as a writer.
Even though I was fluent in English when I first arrived here I found it hard to cope, with culture clash and with a profound sense of homesickness. I had no friends or family here so I felt quite alone. I deeply empathise with those who come here without speaking a single word of English, I imagine the transition for them to be much harder. Looking back, I see how these experiences have shaped who I’ve become, they have made me stronger, more resilient, more empathetic and much more humble.
I have always wanted to be an author, yet when I was younger I felt that I had to experience more of life before I would have anything of significance to say. At this point, I believe I have lived and learned enough to begin to start writing about the human experience with some degree of authority and authenticity. My favourite time to write is either late at night when the city has fallen asleep, or early in the morning during that time between the dream world and the real.
Whilst I work on my writing I wanted to get back to working in media and communications. Breaking Barriers have helped me with this by tailoring my CV, helping me prepare for interviews and have supported me into getting a new role as a Communications Assistant at Western Union. I have the skills to succeed, and BB helps to boost up my confidence in order to do so.
If you face limitations and need help, ask for it. Good people are out there, not too many but they can literally change your life.
Portrait by Kalpesh Lathigra
When I fled Sri Lanka, the thing I brought with me was my Salangai – ankle bracelets made of lots of small musical bells. They make a big noise and are a big part of my dancing. It’s dancing that helped me get through everything. I believe that the body stores up a lot of trauma, and to get rid of that trauma you have to release it through movement.My trauma comes from the civil war in Sri Lanka, between the Tamils and the government. I was studying agricultural engineering when the war started. The fighting got worse and worse, and all of a sudden some of the young people in our community started to disappear. The government had written a law saying that whoever supported the Tamils would be arrested. But they didn’t arrest them — they kidnapped and tortured them.In 2009, I went home for the holidays and one night I got kidnapped by people with a mask. I was forced to leave my house and they took me to a building somewhere in the jungle. I could hear people crying and screaming. I was there for three months, and I saw the worst at that time.My dad got to know some influential people and paid them money to find out where I was, and to get me released. A few weeks after I was freed, my dad told me that he applied for a visa to the UK. People ask me if I got here by boat. But luckily, I was able to come by plane. I didn’t want to come here but I had to do it to save my life.
My asylum application was initially rejected. It was completely unexpected. I was detained for two months at Gatwick airport. I started to refuse to eat. The trauma was getting to me. Once the government tried to put me on a chartered flight back to Sri Lanka. But there was a campaign to save me, and people shared my story on social media and signed petitions — and eventually, after two and a half years, I got my papers.
It wasn’t easy to handle the situation, I was very traumatized, and at one point I even tried to commit suicide. But luckily, I survived.
You need to have goals in life. You never know what will happen in the future but you are walking towards it. Breaking Barriers have supported me to find work whilst I study for my Master’s in Dance Movement Psychotherapy. I want to become a dance therapist to help others to overcome their trauma through movement.
The day I left my country I understood very well that your home is where you feel safe. People often ask me about my future and my answer is that I care more about living in the moment than planning for the future. But it is important to not to forget where we come from and our family roots and values.
Dance is an important link for me back to my home and my old life. It’s an expression of who I am. Being a refugee in the UK often involved being excluded and forbidden from everything but through dance I can always express myself and be true to who I am.