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Art Programs in Calais Bring Humanity Back to the Lives of Refugees

29 August 2017

Through the artistic expression enabled by Art Refuge UK in Calais and echoed in the work of artists around the globe, refugees are reclaiming their identity as human beings despite the methodological dehumanization they face in the media, public policies and police brutality...



Written by Isabel Soloaga


Riot police in “The Jungle” of Calais, a refugee camp on the border of France and the UK, sprayed tear gas into one young refugee’s dinner last week. 

The boy, around 13 years old, lives unaccompanied in the town’s dump. His dream is to reach the UK. That afternoon, men and boys traced their journeys from homes in Eritrea, Afghanistan, the Sudan and other faraway, war torn countries using the maps and art supplies brought to Calais by Art Refuge UK, a small charity that offers art therapy groups in various spaces in and around town alongside their French partners Secours Catholique and Medecins du Monde. The exhausted individuals gathered could finally share their stories, embracing a new mode of self-expression through which to tell them: art.  

“I’m made of the same stuff as you,” one boy, absorbed in his painting, told Mary Rose Brady, Director of Operations, British Association of Art Therapists, when she visited Calais. “People should love me.” 

Human Rights Watch published a report called “Like Living in Hell” recently, documenting  rampant human rights abuses that continue in what was, at this time last year,  home to roughly 6,000 displaced individuals according to the Times. Organizations such as Care for Calais, working on the ground, estimated the number to be nearer to 9,000.  

Less than a year after the French government razed the camp last November, refugees are again flooding into Calais in the hopes of reaching the UK, reported Peter Allen of the Express on Monday. Conservative estimates from Human Rights Watch report the current refugee population as between 400 to 500 individuals in the area. While the decision to destroy the camp was, at the time, heralded as the solution by authorities, it left the root cause of the camp’s formation untouched: namely, that many of the refugees in Calais want to go to the UK. France’s and Britain’s responsibilities to establish a feasible agreement by which these individuals can apply for asylum remains unfulfilled today, while living conditions for migrants on the ground are becoming increasingly volatile.

“They are being treated like animals,” said Clare Moseley, founder of the UK based nonprofit Care4Calais, to a team of volunteers huddled together in the icy wind of the intact camp last November. Today, the nonprofit cites that human rights violations in the camp are worse than ever. Since Human Rights Watch published their report last month, “It has been the refugees who are facing the backlash,” said Naomi Press, an art therapist who has worked in the Jungle for over two years with Art Refuge UK. 

However, determined artists like 19 year old photographer Abdulazez Dukhan and Allan deSouza, chair of UC Berkeley’s Visual Arts program, are working to challenge, subvert and provide alternatives to the mainstream media’s representation of refugees which depict them, in deSouza's words, as “either terrorists or victims.” 
Dukhan, who fled Syria three years ago, now lives in a refugee camp in Belgium. As he says, “We’re just regular people wanting to get back to our ordinary lives.” 

Through the artistic expression enabled by Art Refuge UK in Calais and echoed in the work of artists around the globe, refugees are reclaiming their identity as human beings despite the methodological dehumanization they face in the media, public policies and police brutality. 

“It’s very difficult in Calais right now,” says Bobby Lloyd, CEO of Art Refuge UK. She would know. Her organization, which brings skilled and experienced HCPC registered art therapists into the Calais area, has been on the ground every week for over two years now. She has witnessed the growth of the camp, two demolition attempts by the French government, and, now, a string of human rights abuses. “Boys come in, and they want to tell us their stories,” says Lloyd. “They want to tell us how the police tear gassed their food.” 

Lloyd explained the difference between the established camp a year ago and the ragged settlements of refugees in the area now, who are forced to hide in the woods or in the waste dump outside of town for fear of deportation if they are found. She said,“Since the closure of the camp, there’ve been a huge number of human rights violations by both the police and the local council.” 

Meanwhile, the authorities refuse to acknowledge the situation. Vincent Burton, Deputy Prefect of Calais, rejected the Human Rights Watch’s research into French police brutality, claiming that the allegations were unfounded. The UK government and France have yet come to an agreement concerning the refugees on the border. Human Rights Watch’s report advocates for both countries to set up asylum processing centers in Calais itself--something that has, in the past, been avoided out of fear that such a center would only attract more migrants. 

In the meantime, Art Refuge UK provides what Bobby Lloyd considers “crisis intervention.” 

Lloyd is a socially engaged visual artist based in London with over 25 years of experience in art therapy, often in contexts of conflict. Naomi Press is a sculptor by training who has worked in art therapy over 8 years. Over the past two and a half years the two, along with the rest of the team of art therapists, have become familiar, welcomed faces, traveling each Thursday and Friday to Calais loaded with art supplies and ready to listen to the stories of Calais’ young men and boys. “The core of what we do is bearing witness to what they’re going through,” said Press. “It’s this human to human contact through the medium of  art.” 

Since the closure of the camp last year, police have cracked down on refugees in the region in an effort to prevent the formation of another large-scale settlement. Lloyd suspects that the violence directed at the migrants in Calais is, in a sense, meant to dehumanize: to beat them down to the point that they give up and move on. 

Art Refuge UK works actively to provide a counter to these experiences,  a safe space for the refugees in Calais to be themselves. Naomi explained, “We ask them, ‘What do you do?’ “What is your trade?’ It allows them to become individuals with an identity apart from a ‘refugee.’”  

Abdulazez Dukhan has firsthand experience with the loss of identity that goes hand in hand with the experience of becoming a refugee. A 19 year old Syrian artist who fled his homeland three years ago, he uses photography to create human connections between his subjects--usually individuals from the refugee camps he calls home--and viewers. “To me, I don’t see refugees. I see university students, yeah, and doctors. Regular people who just want to get back to their lives.” 

His bright eyes, wide smile and easy laugh belie the challenges he has faced since fleeing his home in Syria nearly three years ago. “I’m kind of depressed, really. Sometimes when you look at the things you pass, it’s hard to be in your head.”

Dukhan learned photography in Greece while living in a refugee camp. “No one expected I’d learn photography there,” he said. Today, he manipulates his images in photoshop, enabling him to use his imagination to share the images that are in his head. For him, photography offered an escape from the boredom and the frustration of life stuck in the camps. “When I do art, it’s for me. Yeah, it makes me happy.” 

“It’s a difficult situation, but there’re always smiles and laughter in the camps,” he said.  “People will be living in a tent, there’s lots of people, no money, nothing to do, and they want to invite you over for dinner. The media never sees this.” 

Dukhan’s frustration with the media’s portrayals of life in the refugee camps inspired him to put his photography to use. By using photography to share his experiences, he says, “I was able to get my voice a little bit louder.” He shares his work on his Instagram and Facebook pages, entitled “Through Refugee Eyes.” 

In explaining his work, Dukhan said, “I take the photo in my eyes before I take it with the camera. The photograph you see is what I saw.” 

Dukhan’s photography lends viewers a glimpse into another perspective, a perspective which often challenges the understandings they hold. Allan deSouza, an artist and professor based in San Francisco, also challenges viewers to critically examine their understanding of what they see. On viewing his artwork, he said, “The viewer has to do some work in translation to get past their assumptions. To get past what they think it is.”

While bystanders to European Migration and the situation in Calais may understand the thousands of people migrating today through statistics or blanket terms, Dukhan’s photography presents refugees as what they are: individuals. Through his work, they are understood as engineers, students, daughters and friends. 

When asked what art is to him, Allan deSouza said that “Art is a way of being with the world and being active in relation to it. Giving to it. Participating in it. Art allows you to make sense of your place in the world.” 

As refugees in Calais gathered around one table laden with maps, pens, paint and other materials brought by Art Refuge UK, they very literally illustrated their place in the world: where they were from, where they are now, and the paths they took to get there. 

“We do a lot of work with maps,” said Bobby Lloyd of Art Refuge UK. “Our space is about community, about socializing around a table. We use a tablecloth that is a map. That brings people together, as people trade stories of their journeys.” 

It is this tactile processing of traumatic experiences that lies at the heart of the effectiveness of art therapy, explained Mary Rose Brady, Director of Operations and Lead for Children and Young People at the British Association of Art Therapists. “Trauma is a felt thing. To get these wordless experiences out through art, through the  physicality of the art making, is really crucial to recovery,” she said.

As Jeneen Interlandi explained in her New York Times article, “A Revolutionary Approach to Treating PTSD,” the body’s reaction to trauma is to shut down the rational, language-forming areas of the brain: one enters survival mode. In order to recover, trauma victims often react better through nonverbal rehabilitation. 

In Calais, where exposure to traumatic events is ongoing and interactions are often time-limited, something like the physical drawing of one’s journey on a map, or the building of model houses that the groups spaces provide aim at this stage to build on individuals’ coping strategies and resilience.

Witnessing firsthand art therapy at work in Calais cemented Brady’s understanding of the power of art making. “It’s really the best medicine for these men and boys,” she said. 

Brady visited the camp to work alongside Art Refuge UK in April, an experience that affected her greatly. She said, “What I witnessed with my own eyes were men who looked like shells when they arrived, like bodies without souls.” 

Watching them participating in the art making projects, Brady reflected, “Was like watching them come back to themselves, through art.” 

One windy afternoon a group of boys, ranging in ages from 12 to 16, came into the safe house run by Secours Catholique, one of the non profit organizations that Art Refuge UK works closely with with. At first, the boys, none of whom were accompanied, avoided eye contact with each other. “We didn’t say anything,” said Brady, “We just set up art supplies in the middle of the room.” As time passed, the boys drew wordlessly to the table, picked up pens and paper, and tentatively began to draw. 

“As they made art, their defenses dropped,” said Brady. Their posture changed, and smiles were exchanged between them. In the background an old T.V. buzzed, playing Eritrean pop songs. Then, Brady recalled, “They began singing. It was beautiful. For that hour, for that brief moment, they had a place of safety.”  

“Having their truth witnessed and believed is at the core of our work,” said Brady. “I had a little boy, a long time ago, come up to me and say, ‘If you tell someone something, they might not believe you. But if you draw it, it’s there on the table.’” 

Such physical proof often makes an emotional impact in audiences separated from the crisis, like those living in England and America. “When you’re holding a child’s drawing, you’re holding a truth,” said Brady. People become polarized over policies and statistics, when large numbers cease to contain meaning, she reflected. “But one person’s story can affect opinions more than a million statistics.” 

Abdulazez Dukhan’s infectious smile lights up a room. He is studying Dutch, after learning English last year, so that he can go to school in Belgium. He wants to study Computer Engineering and lead a normal life. His photography is a glimpse, through his own eyes, at the real people behind the migration statistics. On his Facebook profile he states, “My message to the world is this: people need to understand that before they judge us by colour, religion, or ethnicity and label us as refugees, that we are simply humans. We are human beings before being anything else, and labels should not be dividing us.” 


You can follow Art Refuge UK here