‘Forced to Flee: Stories from Hull Refugees’ Exhibition’; Monday 20 June to Sunday 17th July

Isabel Arce Zelada

PhD student, Living with the Consequences of Slavery Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull


As well as a programme of events this week, the University of Hull is hosting an exhibition of refugee stories in the Art Gallery. This is Isabel’s.

My so-called interest in the asylum courts in the UK was not born in this country. It was born in the waiting areas of Migrationsverket in Sweden where my mother, my grandmother and I used to sit and wait. Wait for my grandmother’s name to be called, wait for the interpreter to come, wait while looking at the people around us who had come from all parts of the world only to be stuck here, with us. Migrationsverket dealt with all the asylum concerns and migration troubles that you might have encountered yourself in Sweden. They were the ones that at the end of my grandmother’s asylum process told her she was going to be put on a plane and removed to Cuba where she would inevitably be branded as a traitor for overstaying her visa and potentially become a political prisoner. My grandmother simply said that if she was put on a plane she would jump out of it, to which the horrified employee of Migrationsverket told her not to threaten them. She calmly said that this was just a fact, not a threat.

Description from The Ones We Love Shop: ‘The Ones We Love Are Enemies Of The State, this line [is] from Antigone as translated by Seamus Heaney [and] is accompanied by an original line drawing by Cult Days. The Alicorn is a spear headed beast of eastern myths, not the delicate creature of [E]uropean stories. Our love[d] ones are targeted by the state, whether for their race, religion, ethnic origin, or gender expression. We love them and this [is] a mascot for all the fights required to keep loving them.’

When approaching my PhD project I was very aware that while I had experience of an asylum process I did not have personal experience of the asylum process in the UK, which meant that I needed experts in this area. My next dilemma was how to conduct research in a way that would not reproduce the violence and tediousness of the several interviews that people are put through by our immigration authorities. Through the Critical Border Studies direction towards art, poetry, music and other creative methods to talk about the experiences of migration I started to develop what would result in 11 weeks of workshops with some of the most insightful and funny artists I have ever met. We discussed abstract concepts of home, justice, embodiment, but also of specific experiences with the UK asylum process, finding common ground in the ways that the courts and people had treated us.

One of the themes that was uncovered was the assertion that each person there had decided to leave. The threats were there, they were going to die if they did not leave – but nevertheless they had to see how their families were going to survive, keep their kids entertained and tend to their deteriorating mental health until they could find a semi-permanent place to rest their heads. In between recounting hard times there was an ever present humor, a way to keep spirits high in the cruelest environments, a humor that often derailed me and took me places that uplifted me too.

I titled the project Who We Are as an attempt to build a space in which we could discuss personal experiences but also where we could create a different kind of belonging – belonging to each other, in brief moments of time. It was in part inspired by Julie Otsuka’s book The Buddha in the Attic which talks about the experiences of Japanese women migrating to the US as a collective in which each of the experiences is told as a community, highlighting the differences and similarities in their experiences. We were by no means a community from the get-go, but we did have a starting point that unites us: Who We Are is intended not only to answer the questions about our migratory existences but also to create a We where there is so much division.

In The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri, she talks about the ways in which our stories are used and how this unites our experiences:

Our stories were drumming with power. Other people’s memories transported us out of our places of exile, to rich, vibrant lands and to home. They reminded us of the long, unknowable road. We couldn’t see yet, fresh from our escape, but other sharp turns lay ahead. We had created our life’s great story; next would come the waiting time, camp, where we would tell it. Then struggle for asylum, when we would craft it. Then assimilation into new lives, when we would perform it for the entertainment of the native-born and finally, maybe in our old age, we would return to it, face it without frenzy: a repatriation. (p.6-7)

Only one of the artists already had her own shop and social media set up. Some had great enthusiasm and drive, approaching the canvases and instruments with confidence, others were cautious, thinking of the prices of the canvases and paint, thinking carefully about what to paint on them. The project was always designed to have a book or exhibition at the end of it, as a way to have something substantial from our creativeness and production in the project. When the University was looking for artists for an exhibition during Hull Refugee Week it was a great opportunity for us to showcase what we had created and cement the fact that we were all artists in our own right.

To be part of this collective has been one of the great joys in my research and I hope we find ways to keep it alive after this exhibition. If you would want to hear our stories and hear the insightful reflections from people who know about what it is like to be human in the most extreme moral dilemmas come along to this Exhibition at the Brynmor Jones Library. Although not part of the Who We Are project, you can also meet the Dirar family who are exhibiting their fantastic interactive artworks that we had the pleasure of housing at the Wilberforce Institute in 2018.