We are Movers: We are Towers of Strength

This ‘We are Movers: We are Towers of Strength’ blog post is drawn from the chapter with the same title in the recently published Refuge in a Moving World Open Access volume edited by Refugee Hosts PI, Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. The chapter (pp 139 – 144) incorporates the format of an ‘image essay’ and ‘a linked museum exhibition’, aiming to ‘bridge academic research and the lived experiences of migration.’ The We Are Movers project worked collaboratively with staff and students from UCL and migrant women and children from the Helen Bamber Foundation and Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network in London. The project aimed to centre the perspectives and experiences of migrant women and their children, to share learning and produce knowledge relating to migration, and to build social networks and involvement in community based projects. In so doing the project hopes to mediate and challenge the increasing precarity and hardships faced by migrant women and their children. Workshops enabled learning between migrant women and UCL staff and students and produced images that challenge and question concepts such as “Integration”; migrant Categories, Stereotypes & Misrepresentations; and Belonging.  Through the activities of the project the importance of solidarity and collective strength within an increasingly hostile environment are brought to the fore.

We Are Movers: We Are Towers Of Strength

by Rachel Benchekroun (UCL) and the We Are Movers project team.

Women’s experiences of migration are often shaped by gender-based discrimination and violence, familial responsibilities, and limited access to social benefits based on shifting ideas about the ‘deservingness’ of migrants. As a result, displaced women often face increasing hardship over time. At the same time, research suggests that social networks and involvement in community-based projects can mediate or challenge the precarity caused by migration and settlement experiences. Recognising the multiple barriers experienced by migrant women, the We Are Movers project put migrant women’s perspectives and experiences at the centre of a process of shared learning and construction of knowledge about migration. In doing so, it sought to support their capacities for engagement, reduce their geographical and social isolation, and fully involve all participants in the dissemination of the project.

Participants in the We Are Movers project included women from the Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network (LRMN) and the Helen Bamber Foundation who were in the process of seeking asylum or indefinite leave to remain, and are predominantly mothers of young children. Participants also included UCL staff and students, some of whom are migrants themselves, and who are all interested in the topic of migration, as researchers and/or as activists. We organised face-to-face workshops bringing together existing research on migration with women’s lived experiences of forced migration and settlement. Drawing on academic readings, research skills and arts-based activities, we engaged in deep collaborative learning and created the images which were to be exhibited at a series of events.

We considered: What does it mean to belong? How can we challenge negative images of migrants? How do experiences of poverty, hostility and coercion affect the possibility of “integration”? How can our answers inform responses to displacement in universities and beyond? Photographs, drawings and text from the sessions were developed into a series of three abstract images: Questioning “Integration”; Categories, Stereotypes & Misrepresentations; and Belonging. Accompanying texts explained key ideas developed during the collective process of production. We also explored concepts through drama and song. All these participatory methods supported the project to become a safe space of sharing and exchange. As Promise, one of the participants highlighted:

“I like the freedom of speech, the friendly environment (and the) good teamwork with good teachers. (Also) the knowledge I acquire from the sessions is very important to me and were enlightening.”

The artwork was first launched at the Migration Museum under the name of “We are Movers: We are towers of strength”. It then moved to the Beyond Borders festival at Battersea Arts Centre, the Refugee Hosts Moving Objects exhibition and the UCL Teaching and Learning Conference. Lastly, “We are Movers” came to UCL to coincide with Refugee Week 2019, where a new infographic was unveiled: “Refugees in Higher Education: It’s all connected”. This included general facts about displacement and explored what universities in the UK are doing to support access to higher education for refugees and forced migrants. The visual artworks produced as part of We Are Movers prompt viewers to question reductive stereotypes of ‘the migrant’. Whether people are labelled ‘immigrant’, ‘migrant’, ‘citizen’ or ‘mover’, there is always far more to each person than we can possibly know.

The project highlights the importance of solidarity and collective strength in a hostile environment. It challenges hostility and discrimination against migrants by offering new ways to see, feel, and understand conditions of mobility and settlement. In this sense, social justice and activism have been a central dimension of the project for all participants. Hanna, a participant, commented:

“Through collaborative arts-based methods in which knowledge was co-constructed between UCL-based and migrant women, the project has campaigned to make UCL refugee-friendly at all levels. The project has been particularly valuable to me in its example of a horizontally structured and collaborative project that challenges the institution it works within to do better.”

As part of the Refuge in a Moving World network, we are very excited to now share the collaborative learning and artwork from this project in a chapter of a new book, Refuge in a Moving World: Tracing refugee and migrant journeys across disciplines, edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and published (open access) on 17 July 2020. This chapter shares the images produced in the face-to-face workshops of the We are Movers project and outlines the key ideas developed during the collaborative process of the project.

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If you found this piece of interest you can read the whole chapter here, or access the recommended reading below:

Greatrick, A. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) The roles of performance and creative writing workshops in refugee-related research.

MOAS Podcast (2017) Refugee Art, Performance and Forced Migration

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2016) “Writing the Camp

Sheringham, O. (2019) Sharing stories and the quiet politics of welcome

Featured image: Art work produced by the We Are Movers project. (c) We Are Movers

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