A virtual festival will showcase the role of art in the refugee crisis

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“MAUS” inspired Asia Alfasi (pictured) to pull her home country. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Art Spiegelman, whose family immigrated from Sweden to America in 1951, described his father’s experience of the Holocaust; Jews are depicted as mice and Germans as cats. The book “defeated humanity even though the characters were not human,” the Scottish-Libyan artist says. “I decided that instead of hoping that other people would draw or make Arabs, I could do it myself.”

Ms Alfasi’s art is included in the Imperial War Museum’s new virtual festival, “Refugee Nights”. At a time when more people are displaced than at any time in history, the three-week series reminds viewers of the struggle and resourcefulness of refugees. It is also one of the most advanced offers by British museums in lockdown. “Refugee Nights” ditches lectures and instead crams panel discussions, film segments, cooking classes and performances into three hour-long events, ending on December 1.

Hassan Akkad, a photographer and filmmaker from Syria, is an engaging coordinator and recalls his own journey from Damascus to Britain. The result isn’t seamless – guests forget to move on and off and scene transitions are often quite silly – but the unsophisticated format somehow fits the visible rough experiences. The series is at its best when it gives access to artists such as Ms. Alfasi, Waad Al-Kateab (director of “For Sama”, an Oscar-nominated documentary) and the founders of the theater Good Chance in Calais “Jungle”. to present their work and speak openly. Their efforts combine to create a diverse but interconnected canon.

Biography, homage and contrasts between local and global issues are at the forefront of that work. Ms. Alfasi’s graphic novels depict Libya in the 1960s and beyond; it evokes a country affected by the Vietnam war, the American civil rights movement and the Beatles. She grew up watching anime adaptations of classic stories such as “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Anne of Green Gables” and her graphic novels draw on these influences, using exaggerated manga movements and emotion. cinematic to show the drama of refugee experience. (Unlike Mr. Spiegelman, her characters are human). “Nothing happens in a vacuum,” she explains from her studio. “All these things provided a hook through which a Western reader could understand and place themselves in this time and history. “

Addressing misconceptions about refugees is also part of the project. In the first session, Mr. Akkad asked a panel of international students which country has the largest number. One respondent went through Germany​​​​ and “the Nordic countries” before landing on the correct answer – Turkey – on his third attempt. Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor, UK representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), provided more context. In 2019, the UNHCR estimated that nearly 80m people were displaced worldwide, of which 26m were forced to leave their country. Many have fled conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sahel, Yemen and Syria, and the UNHCR has also improved its tracking of displaced Venezuelans, many of whom are not are not refugees or asylum seekers. Despite the rising numbers, around 85% of refugees are still in low- or middle-income countries close to their own, prompting suggestions that Britain and Western Europe at its “highest level” seems a bit bland.

Where art makes a difference, Mr Akkad says, is in its ability to focus on “human faces” rather than headlines. He and other artists want to use this platform to draw attention to the stories of others. Ms Al-Kateab has filmed the grim conditions at Camp Moria in Greece in the hope of spurring Western leaders to action. In “Nadia’s Story”, a strip commissioned by Care International, an anti-poverty charity, Ms Alfasi describes how a Yazidi family fled Iraq.

“Refugee Nights” fosters a sense of community, connecting the experience of Lord Alf Dubs, a British peer who arrived on the Kindertransport on the eve of the Second World War and Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian refugee who fled to Germany in it. a wheelchair “There is a common thread of loss and gain and kindness and community in all the stories of the people who appear,” Mr. Akkad says. “For me that’s what’s important: humanity and kindness and coming together in solidarity. ” He hopes the broadcasts are inspiring as well as educational.

Omid Djalili, a comedian whose family fled Iran for London, is succeeding in that regard. He remembers how his mother and father, who was a translator for private hospitals in Harley Street, would invite doctors to dinner parties, only to spend the whole evening cooking in the kitchen. Afterwards, he joked: “It was such a special dinner party that you weren’t even invited! The series, which ends on December 1, gives their son and other refugees a seat at the table. By focusing on creativity, “Refugee Nights” highlights the richness of their experiences and calls for a more responsible response from the West.

“Refugee Nights” can be accessed via the Imperial War Museum website

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