Incredible tales of survival against the odds will be revealed as part of a startling new art exhibition in Sheffield.
Back Where You Came From features the works of six refugees, each one currently seeking asylum here in the city after being forced to flee their own country.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Sheffield art therapist Emilie Taylor, working in conjunction with University of Sheffield, and will open during Refugee Week 2015, from June 15 to 21.
Emilie told The Star: “Art can open up very raw emotions and is an excellent form of expression, particularly for things that can be difficult to put into words.
“We worked with six individuals on this project, talking with them as a group through each of their personal stories before we began working together on prints.
“Seeing what came across in those prints, as a result of our discussions, was utterly fascinating - for them as much as me.”
And, somewhat controversially, as part of their discussions, the group studied ancient stories about migration, preserved in the biblical book of Genesis, looking for parallels with the current migration crisis.
Dr Casey Strine, member of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield, said: “The book of Genesis is the first book in the Bible. To many people, Jews and Christians, it is a sacred, religious text, but we shouldn’t forget that, religion-aside, it is an ancient text, a book to be read and interacted with in its own right.
“In the tales of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we’re reading about figures that experienced forced migration. Indeed, that experience plays a crucial role in how these figures have shaped the identity and beliefs of various communities for nearly three millennia.
“Several of the participants we worked with - bearing in mind they were all from different countries and of different cultures and faiths - noted how they were encouraged to see that migration is nothing new, but a longstanding experience that often comes with enormous challenges.”
Emilie explained: “It was stunning to see how well the people we were working with could identify with the stories in these texts - which might seem like fairy stories to you or I - and draw parallels with them. One woman told how she’d been forced to walk for weeks across two whole countries to board a boat for Britain.”
The participant, known as Tsehay, explained: “The stories we read were the highlight of the sessions for me. The one that really resonated with me was about how Jacob travelled from his hometown to seek refuge in his uncle’s home. I could identify with this, as I had to walk along the roads of Syria and Greece on my way to the UK.”
Refugee Week is a UK-wide programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities that celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK, as well as promoting a better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.
And the exhibition, which opens on Monday, seeks to promote an open dialogue about migration, breaking down barriers and common misconceptions.
Emilie added: “It’s giving a platform to people who are all at different stages of the process of gaining a new start.
“It’s also about celebrating them and what they’re bringing to our society, because it’s a two-way street and that’s too often forgotten.
“This is a grey area for them; they can’t yet work until they’ve finished going through the process, so are living on minimal government hand-outs, which is not where they want to be. “They’re hard working people who want to be a valuable part of this community and are currently prohibited from being complete people - it’s a scary kind of limbo. In this work they have generously shared their difficult experiences and insights and the result is an emotional journey for any viewer.”
One participant, Ben, said: “Being around people with difficulties brought by government policies and seeing them put those problems aside and concentrate on doing the art humbled me. “It was a positive distraction from the harsh asylum system. It proved that being disabled to do paid work is not inability to be productive.”
The free exhibition will be held at the gallery at 35 Chapel Walk, from Monday to Saturday until June 27.