Being Human

Former child migrants, friends, family, neighbours and the general public gathered at the V&A Museum of Childhood on November 19th for a series of films screenings, talks and performances about Child Migrant Stories as part of the national Being Human Festival. The programme of music, intercultural games, films and music by refugee and other artists attracted over 2,000 people.

The first film to be shown was Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present, featuring 18 of the child migrants who came to East London under the age of 18 from 1930 to the present day. From Bangladesh to Bethnal Green, from the Caribbean to Clapton and from Somalia to Stamford Hill. People held their breath as Marie talked about the separation from her family during civil war in Rwanda. But they laughed when Heather, from Jamaica, recounted how she was told she would turn white when she went to England.

One ten year old girl said she enjoyed the film and learnt ‘that many refugees suffered abuse and racism at school.” She wanted, “to know more about all the kids stories. I was very engaged!”

The daughter of Nurul Giani wrote, “Very empowering and emotional for us as a family to hear.”

Other people commented:

“The film is fabulous.”

“Great humanity, warm and moving.”

“Increased my understanding and made me appreciate difficulties for new arrivals in a strange country.”

“It gives a friendly face or multiple faces to a topic that is often treated via a negative angle.”

Then we showed Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who escaped Vietnam by boat with her father. People gasped as they watched Linh, on screen,  draw the small boat with 50 people crammed inside. This was followed by a Q&A session with Linh and a reading by Tina Puryear, co-author of Linh’s father’s recent autobiography, A Catholic with Confucian Tendencies.

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Q&A session with Linh Vu after the screening of Passing Tides. Photo by Mitchell Harris.

People appreciated the film’s, “authenticity of emotions” and learnt about, “The process of refugee rescue and transition.” Several people thought it was, “fantastic to have the actual person in the film present at the showing and seeing/hearing their thoughts. It is wonderful how people survive and GROW.” They thought, “the reading from the autobiography really added to the perspectives.”

Ugwumpiti, the story of Maurice Nwokeji who was caught up in the Biafran war, was screened next. People were horrified to hear about Maurice’s experience of war but laughed at how, when he joined his parents in the UK and they offered him chocolate as a treat, he hated it. “Far too sweet. I much preferred roasted rat. ” One person felt that, “Maurice’s heart told the story well.” Another that, “Stories have to be told as part of the healing process.” Many people made the link between historical and contemporary migration. ”Then is now. Does our society really care? And is that reflected in government policy?”

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Q&A session with Maurice Nwokeji after the screening of Ugwumpiti. Photo by Mitchell Harris.

The last film, Life is a Destiny, is about how Argun Imamzade rescued his family’s photographic album from his bombed out house in Cyprus in the 1960s. People loved the discussion between Argun and his grandchildren on film about what they would rescue if they had to leave home in a hurry. His oldest grandchild recounts how she would seize her mobile phone. Her grandfather looks puzzled but his granddaughter has a point. Her photographs would be stored on her phone and  she would use it to make sure other family members were safe.

There were many ideas on what else the project could do – more research; more videos; more in depth stories; more talks; exhibitions; one minute films shot by migrants of their daily lives; social media for teenagers to talk about migration; films used as a resource for education, inspiration and projects for schools, NGOS, Unicef, Save the Children – the list was endless.This all needs resources, of course, and present funding has come to an end.

We retired upstairs to the hall to hear Maurice’s rousing reggae band, One Jah. Maurice thanked people for hearing his story, something he has always yearned to tell. He played music inspired by his childhood, hiding in foxholes to escape the bombs and scavenging for snakes and lizards. He and his younger brother would not have survived if the Red Cross had not provided them with one bowl of food a day, what the children named Ugwumpiti, the title he chose for his film.

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Maurice Nwokeji and One Jah perform at the end of the day

 

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On the Road during Refugee Week

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Children watching Child Migrant Stories in Hackney Museum

Child Migrant Stories was in demand during Refugee Week. We started off on Sunday 19th June with a screening of the film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present in the Festival Hall on the South Bank. There was a great atmosphere with dance, music and poetry performances from people with a refugee background.

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Refugee Week in the Royal Festival Hall

Amnesty, under the banner, What have they ever done for us? invited visitors to chart the journeys of well known people who have contributed to our social, cultural and political life.

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Amnesty’s interactive, ‘What have they ever done for us?’

Passing Tides, the story of Linh Vu who as a young girl escaped Vietnam by boat with her father, was shown throughout the week at the V&A Museum of Childhood. After several weeks preparation Hackney Museum launched an ambitious two-hour programme with primary school children based on four of the Child Migrant Stories. Almost 200 children participated in these workshops.

At the beginning of one workshop Josie, the museum educator, asked,“How many of you were born abroad?” Four hands shot up.“How many of you have parents or grandparents who were born abroad?”A forest of hands – all but 3 or 4 children had parents or grandparents born abroad.

I watched the introductory film, Child Migrant Stories – Voices Past and Present with one school group. They were transfixed and then plied me with questions.“How did you find people to be interviewed,” asked a bright spark of a girl.“I’ve lived and worked in East London for over 40 years,” I replied. “So I knew some of the people already.”

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Being quizzed about the film in Hackney Museum

How I found people to be interviewed was, of course, more complicated. I followed up people who I knew from when I was running a training clothing workshop with Bangladeshi clothing workers in Spitalfields in the early 1980s. I contacted Mr. Vu who I knew when he first arrived in Hackney as one of the Vietnamese ‘boat people.’ At the time I was working as a community education worker with Hackney Adult Education and helped Mr. Vu find premises for English and mother tongue classes. Some of the people I interviewed run businesses in Hackney. Argun, from Cyrpus, has sold me stationery for years. Eylem, from Turkey, has served me coffee and Turkish breakfast. Local community organisations and neighbours, too, have helped to put me in touch with people.

After the film the children divided into four groups. They looked through a replica of the photo album that Argun saved from his bombed out house in Cyprus at the age of 12 and discussed what they would save if they had to escape in a hurry.

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Argon’s photo album that he rescued from his bombed out house

They fingered a huge multi-coloured African cloth similar to the one that Claudine used to carry her young brother through the forest to the Congo during the Rwandan civil war.

They admired the drawings that Linh drew of her escape from Vietnam with her father. The fishing boat that took them out to the South China Sea; the British boat that rescued Linh, her father and fellow passengers when they had run our of food and a storm was brewing; the porthole through which Linh spied the Thai pirates lurking on the horizon.

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Children examine Linh Vu’s drawing of being rescued by a British boat

The children rewrote and performed the words of Henry’s moving song, There isn’t any place safe to live for the refugees. Henry, a musician, poet and artist, escaped the civil war in El Salvador at the age of 17.

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Children compose new words for There isn’t Any Place Safe to Live by Henry Bran

I felt sad that Henry was not there to see how children were inspired by his song featured in our introductory film. Henry died just a few weeks after I interviewed him. But I was glad that his daughter, Gabriela, who has inherited her father’s artistic talent, would see how his father is inspiring another generation.

At the beginning of the workshop the children wrote in faint pen what they already knew about refugees. At the end they wrote in darker pen what they had learnt. The results were impressive.

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What children knew about refugees before and after the workshop

It is a joy to see how Child Migrant Stories is being used so effectively as a learning resource. Hackney Museum staff found that the introductory film, in particular, resonated with children’s lives: “Children have been able to compare the stories on the screen to their own family’s journey, and have been so excited to see places that they recognise on the big screen.”

This is what one child, aged 11, thought about her experience at the museum. “We’re here happily living our lives with our play stations and mobile phones. I’ve got everything handed to me on a plate, but not everyone has that and it’s important to remember that during Refugee Week.”

A year 6 teacher from Mossbourne Parkside Academy remarked, “Refugee Week is more relevant now than it has ever been. It’s vital for children to know what it means …and the workshop at the museum helps them to see the ‘refugee’ as a person with a story and not a number, statistic or news story.”

Hackney Gazette covered the initiative with the headlines, “Negative perceptions of migrants overturned during Refugee Week at Hackney Museum.” http://www.hackneygazette.co.uk/news/education/negative_perceptions_of_migrants_overturned_during_refugee_week_at_hackney_museum_1_4595139

Linh encouraged her daughter’s school to show Passing Tides during Refugee Week. This is how a Year 2 teacher from Lauriston School responded,“Poplar Class watched it and were enthralled. We had a great discussion about why people end up being refugees, and where they come from and where they go to, and what people can do to help. We thought Linh’s drawings were amazing!”

Refugee Week ended with a screening of Passing Tides at the Rio cinema before the film Fire at Sea, set on and around the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was wonderful to see Linh’s beautiful drawings on the big screen. The double bill was a success. Both films featured moving stories of people risking their lives at sea in search of safety but they differed too. Linh, who escaped Vietnam with her father by fishing boat, told her story in her own words. In Fire at Sea the migrants’ harrowing lives, and indeed deaths, are almost a backdrop to the story of a young boy from Lampedusa.

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Waiting for the screening at the Rio Cinema

After the films Mitch, my fellow filmmaker, and myself joined Dr Anna Arnone, who has studied migration in relation to Lampedusa, in a question and answer session. People were surprised to hear that Lampedusa, besides being the arrival point for many migrants and the place where many have drowned offshore, is also a popular tourist destination.

We got some lovely feedback about the event, “I thought the film (Passing Tides) was brilliant – the story so cleverly told and illustrated with very evocative art and photographs. I actually cried and I think the combination of the harrowing details told in such a matter of fact way and the blending of domestic and international news throughout was just right. My friend thought Fire at Sea was quite wonderful and they both gave us the basis of a night’s discussion over supper.”

Another visitor was inspired to read in the credits that the film was shot on IPhone 6s. Our only regret about the Rio screening was that Linh could not join us. She was trampling about in the mud at Glastonbury.

We would like to thank all our partners for offering us the opportunity to share Child Migrant Stories – the Rio, the South Bank, the V&A Museum of Childhood and Hackney Museum. There are already plans to work with some of them in the future, “In the coming months and years, we’d love to continue to explore more of the stories and design ways of making them accessible to the children of Hackney.” Hackney Museum

But we also believe the website and films are of international appeal. Passing Tides had over 8,000 viewings on YouTube within a week – from Hackney to Ho Chi Minh City, from Sydney to San Francisco.

With the recent report showing that the 6 richest countries have only taken 9% of the world’s refugees we know there is no room for complacency.