Refugee Week: Sheffield hosts Migration Matters festival with artists from across the world involved
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Sheffield is hosting Migration Matters, the biggest event for Refugee Week in the UK which sees artists and other talented people from refugee, migrant, and asylum seeker backgrounds showcase their contributions to the Sheffield community.
Sheffield became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary for asylum-seekers and refugees in 2007, and in March 2022 it was estimated that the city was home to around 1,000 refugees – a figure that was expected to rise due to the crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As of Valentine’s Day this year, 745 visas had been issued for refugees fleeing Ukraine who had been sponsored by Sheffielders under the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, and around 163,500 Ukrainians had settled across the UK by this time.
The Migration Matters festival was first launched in 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum and the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, which saw millions flee the bloody civil war to seek asylum in safer countries.
It saw 12,000 people take part last year.
Those involved in the event this year include Kenyan afro pop band Sauti Sol; Honey Thalijeh, captain of the first all-female Palestinian football team, and award-winning Syrian musician Maya Youssef.
This year, the event follows more than a year of turmoil for the people of Ukraine – it is estimated that more than eight million Ukrainians have fled the country since the start of the Russian invasion, with a further eight million internally displaced.
Ellen Beardmore, marketing and communications manager for Migration Matters, said: “The festival celebrates the diversity of Sheffield and all the different communities that make Sheffield really special and a really vibrant place to be.
“All our artists are amazing, the festival has every kind of art you can imagine, and interwoven with this are the artists’ experiences.”
Daria Bulavena, 20, a refugee from Ukraine now living in Chesterfield with plans to study art at Sheffield Hallam, is one of the artists involved with the Migration Matters event.
She came from Odessa to the UK with her sister, Olha, and was later joined by her 10 year brother and her mother.
Daria said: “We came abroad when we started to hear explosions near our home. We were spending every night in the basement. I hadn’t been to England before. It was my first experience going to another country without my mother.
“We started to collect money for tickets to England. We had to get to Chişinău (Moldova) then travel by plane to London. I paid for the travel myself, the flights were around £400 for myself and my sister.”
The family’s sponsors are a husband and wife, who are both teachers.
"They have been very welcoming and we feel safe here. They are such good people,” Daria said.
“I am thinking of staying with my sponsors whilst studying - they said we could stay as long as we like. I have epilepsy and I can have seizures while I’m asleep so it is safer if there are other people in the house.
“One of my artworks is of a bandora, a traditional Ukrainian instrument and an important symbol for Ukraine. I couldn’t bring it with me because it is so big I would have needed to book another seat on the plane.”
Daria said that she generally felt welcomed in both Chesterfield and Sheffield, though she has had some awkward conversations - one person she met thought that Ukraine was in Africa.
Ellen explained that there was an issue of ‘keyboard warriors’ who don’t like Sheffield City Council’s status as a City of Sanctuary.
This is borne out by replies to a post on The Star’s Facebook page which read ‘It’s Refugee Week - is Sheffield a welcoming place’.
The post attracted more than 80 comments, almost all of which took a negative view of refugees and migrants in the city.
One user commented: “We have more than taken enough in in our city at times in certain areas you feel in the minority [...] schools, housing, NHS all at breaking point.”
Another said: “Sheffield City Council have turned large parts of Sheffield into ghettos!”, and a third added: “Too welcoming”.
Additionally, a Twitter poll found that more than half of respondents had never heard of Refugee Week before, and of those that had, fewer than half planned to do something to mark the event.
Sam Holland, director of the festival, said: “Our line up truly spans the globe. Given the rhetoric coming from Home Secretary Suella Braverman and the protests against the Illegal Migration Bill, there’s a certain bleakness right now about the country’s migration and refugee situation.
“It feels more essential than ever to have the festival to bring all communities together and so people who don’t feel safe have a cultural sanctuary.
“This year we are focusing on communities we feel we haven’t fully represented in the past. One of the main aims is to get young people involved in the migration conversation and sharing their own experiences.”
The Migration Matters Art exhibition is being held at The Moor in Sheffield City Centre from 11am-4pm until June 24.