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Seeing And Imagining A More Inclusive Future This Refugee Week

22/06/2017 12:48
PHILIPPE HUGUEN via Getty Images

The heart and soul of Refugee Week is the belief that the arts can inspire social change and promote connection between people in a way nothing else can. It delights, moves and surprises us but it can also give us the courage to question what we think we know and imagine what we don't. It invites us to discover that those who seem so very different and distant from us only appear that way because we haven't tried - or been given the opportunity - to engage with them as people.

This year we're very excited because it seems like more of the arts community is getting involved in Refugee Week than ever before. Museums, galleries and individual artists are coming into this space to engage with the issue in new ways. We know that artists and cultural institutions can't and shouldn't act alone to resolve deep-seated social challenges, but we also know that they are very good at opening up spaces where it is possible to have discussions that others might consider too frightening or complex. They also have a unique ability to bring what is invisible and silenced into the light, and the reality of the refugee experience is that too often it remains invisible or one-dimensional.

There's a broader context to this, of course. Britain at this time is at a crossroads. Following the Brexit referendum the immigration debate really rose from beneath the surface. It's always been there but now it's spoken, the arts community is responding to that by inviting stories and audiences to find their own ways to connect and learn from each other.

It is time for us all to do our part for this process. I am from former Yugoslavia and these recent developments have evoked all sorts of memories from the 1990s, when nationalism became so quickly a dominant ideology. From that Yugoslav perspective, it seems to me that societies become fragile at certain points in their history and that this down a very dangerous road. Some politicians seek to solve complex social problems by blaming them on 'others' and in a society like Britain's, which is already very diverse, the only way to return to a monocultural society is to start turning people against each other and splitting them apart. We don't want to go that way.

This is why, at this moment of uncertainty, we chose Our Shared Future for the theme of this year's Refugee Week. After the dividing lines that emerged through the referendum - and as it turned out, a snap general election - we wanted a theme that would invite people from all walks of life to join us in looking forwards, in imagining what our shared future could look like. We also wanted a focal point for positive dialogue and have been inviting our partners - as well as community groups members of the public - to come up with their own ideas of what that means and share their unique visions of our shared future, reflecting our values of respect for difference. We want to rekindle the welcoming aspects of our society and bring people together.

This is very important for developing what we think about social integration. It's a phrase we hear a lot but what does it actually mean? It is not about telling people they need to give up their language and culture in order to fit in here. London is a great example of a city that has remained open and, as a result, has benefited hugely from skills and contributions of a wide range of communities who have been arriving here in the last seventy years, and much further back - whose contributions are woven in the very fabric of this society, and all too often forgotten.

The artists, musicians, actors and poets we work with explore people's everyday experiences, histories, trials and aspirations. In hundreds of events in public spaces and arts venues nationwide this week they will be bringing to life for people the human beings we see to often reduced to statistics. I believe there is something uniquely valuable in the refugee experience which otherwise is lost. Refugees are a very diverse community themselves but in my experience they share a creativity and resilience - which indeed they must, to build their new lives - which can be an enormous asset to our society.

Yet they also need and deserve to be recognised as more than that because being a refugee is often the most heartbreaking and traumatic aspect of an identity that encompasses so much more. So we need to be careful not to generalize, not to identify refugees only as traumatized victims or indeed to assume that displacement is purely negative and damaging experience. For, as Edward Said argued beautifully, displacement can also be creatively potent and transformative experience, enabling 'exiles' to develop a double (counterpointed) perspective that can open up new ways of seeing and imagining a more inclusive future.

Almir Koldzic is a co-director and co-founder of Counterpoints Arts, which supports the arts by and about refugees & migrants, seeking to ensure that their contributions and welcomed and recognized within British art, history and culture

Almir is sharing his story as part of Refugee Week (19-25 June), the UK's largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees to our society. Hundreds of arts, cultural and educational events will be held nationwide in renowned venues, public squares, libraries, schools and places of worship to celebrate our shared future

To find out what's going on near you, visit the Refugee Week website. You can also join the conversation by telling us what #OurSharedFuture means to you via Twitter or Facebook

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