WORLD REFUGEE DAY
World Refugee Day celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution. It is used as an occasion to build empathy and understanding towards refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world and recognise their resilience in rebuilding their lives.
At Manchester Museum, we believe that it is our duty to represent the stories and cultures of people from all backgrounds. It is vital that we celebrate the contribution of refugees to the culture and society of the UK, and encourage people to connect with refugee communities found in Manchester and across Britain to facilitate a stronger relationship between all in our society.
‘The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent anti-racism protests have shown us how desperately we need to fight for a more inclusive and equal world: a world where no one is left behind. It has never been clearer that all of us have a role to play in order to bring about change. Everyone can make a difference. This is at the heart of UNHCR’s World Refugee Day campaign.’
WORLD REFUGEE DAY: THE REFUGEE VOICE
Now, more than ever, we find ourselves living through an age of refugeedom. It is estimated that there are roughly 70.8 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Among them are 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers who have had to completely abandon their lives and homes in order to find security and protection away from the calamity of war, political oppression, and natural disasters.
It is thought that the UK is home to around 126,720 refugees, with 5,839 settled and living in Greater Manchester. Our city can be incredibly welcoming to refugees, and much work is being done to illustrate the arts and culture of refugee communities living in Manchester, including the Celebrating Syria event which took place across the city late last year. However, it would be wrong to pretend that there is no prejudice and discrimination against refugees and asylum seekers, and the death of Shukri Abdi last year highlights that much more needs to be done to provide refugees with a safe environment to live in. It is a sustained effort that needs to continue even when the topic does not dominate news headlines.
A breakdown of the forcibly displaced population found worldwide. (Source: UNHCR)
At Manchester Museum, we believe that it is vital to aid in the effort to build our city into the most caring and inclusive community as possible. It is our goal to provide insight and education into the refugee experience so that action can be taken to provide refugees who live in our city with a welcoming and considerate environment that they can actively engage with. We hope to help refugees to rebuild their lives in the UK by nurturing a sense of belonging for people who have made Manchester their home.
Museums are often considered to be rooted in the past, but it is just as important for a museum to reflect contemporary society through their exhibitions, displays, and collecting themes in order to remain inclusive and accessible to the communities that they serve. We are working hard to make sure that Manchester Museum reflects this through our work, and we would be the first to acknowledge that we need to continue in our effort to build a museum which feels as inclusive and welcoming to everyone, including refugees and asylum seekers.
In 2016, we added a life jacket to our permanent collection which was worn by a Syrian refugee during their crossing to the Greek island of Lesvos. The Museum believes that ‘Collecting Life’ is vital, so that we can represent all facets of our contemporary society. The museum felt compelled to display the item to highlight just how significant the refugee crisis has become over the last decade. According to the Museum’s Deputy Head of Collections Bryan Sitch, the life jacket was chosen because it ‘has come to symbolise the mass movement of people and the dangerous plight of refugees’.
This life jacket worn by a refugee crossing from Syria was presented to Bryan Sitch on his visit to Lesvos in 2016.
In 2019, Manchester Museum became only the second museum in the country to be awarded ‘Museum of Sanctuary’ status by the refugee charity City of Sanctuary. The award was presented to the museum to highlight the commitment we have made to welcoming and supporting ‘sanctuary seekers’. Manchester Museum is dedicated to promoting a culture of inclusion, and as such, have pledged to develop our work to support refugees and asylum seekers. Members of our Visitor Team have also undergone Refugee Awareness Training, so when the museum doors reopen later in the year, we will are ready to talk about what can be done to help support local refugees and asylum seekers.
Andrea Winn, Curator of Community Exhibitions at Manchester Museum, receiving the ‘Museum of Sanctuary’ award on behalf of Manchester Museum.
We have also been working in partnership with Multilingual Manchester so that the museum can connect with our visitors no matter where they come from or which language they speak. And we have hosted a number of events with Journeys Festival to display work by refugees, and put on thought-provoking exhibits, including our recent ‘This Garden of Ours’ display. It is our hope that the exhibition provided our visitors with the opportunity to take a moment to reflect on the difficult journeys of migration made throughout the natural world, and in this way, consider the tough excursions made by refugees in modern society.
CONGO’S ACTIVIST IN EXILE
Mainstream social discourse frequently shapes the stories of refugees without offering them the chance to contribute to the conversation which so often surrounds them in the media. For Congolese asylum seeker and human rights activist Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu, this is unacceptable.
In 2006, Jenny was forced to leave behind his life in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after it became apparent that he was at risk of imprisonment and death after protesting against the abuses committed by the Congolese regime. Since reaching safety in the UK, Jenny has been fighting to win freedom in the Congo by gathering information about the situation in his homeland. He has spoken at conferences at the House of Commons, appeared on Congolese diaspora television, and has recently had a short documentary created about his life.
Jenny at the Great Lakes Conference 2019 at the Houses of Parliament.
It is his belief that refugees and asylum seekers should have the opportunity to shape the narrative of their lives without having it told for them. Here are some of Jenny’s thoughts on life as an asylum seeker in the UK.
A LIFE IN HIS OWN WORDS
Jenny is a proud Congolese man who had to leave his country behind when it became apparent that his life was at risk after attending a protest against the regime. An English pastor in the Congo organised passage for him to the UK, and since then, he has been campaigning for freedom in his homeland.
“In the Congo, I would work to feed my family part-time, and I would go to work to change the country part-time. I was an activist in the afternoon with friends, with politicians, to build a strategy to change the country. That was my life.
“For me, I do understand England is not my country of origin. I came from Africa, but I have lived here for more than 10 years. For me, England is my country. I live in this country because I came here as an asylum seeker, I came from where they are killing people, the violence and civil wars, no freedom, but I came to England to save my life.
“I have to be honest. In my country, I describe it like someone who has no life. But now things have to change. But who is going to change things? It’s not American people, it’s not British people, it’s not French people. I have to fight to change my country. All my life, I was born with the dictator, I grew up with the dictator, I lived with the dictator, I woke up with the dictator. No freedom, no free speech, nothing good in my country.
“When I came to the UK, I worked with RAPAR [a refugee charity] to create my own human rights organisation. It is called NICS, which means No Impunity for the Congolese State. I contacted 65 men in my country, they are all activists. They are against the regime now and we work together. Every day, I go to the library or to McDonald’s near where I live. I connect to the Wi-Fi, I speak to them, and I tell them they have to collect all the evidence on how they kill people. I’m going to save it here, and I have presented a case to the International Criminal Court.”
According to UNHCR, there are 5.06 million persons of Concern in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Source: UNHCR)
ATTITUDES TOWARDS REFUGEES
On a political level, attitudes towards the acceptance of refugees has become a moral battleground. Jenny believes that it is wrong for people to refer to refugees living in the UK as second-class residents.
“There are politicians that say ‘England for English People’, ‘English First’ or ‘British First’. That means me, I am second. I do not have the same rights as them in this country. These things affect me a little bit, I am not happy with that.
“I love this country, I love this kingdom, because this country gave me everything I have today. This country gave me peace. This country saved my life. If you go to Google, you type Congo, Kinshasa, Kabila, you’re going to see every single minute. People died, people lost their life in my country because of politicians. England saved me. If I was in the Congo, I have to tell you the truth. I would have died a long time ago.
“The first reason I came and I left my country was to protect myself, to save my life. But when I arrived here, I felt in peace. I think I am better to live in the UK, I am better, I am safe, my mind is in peace to live in this country.”
THE ROLE OF THE MUSEUM
“It would be nice if museums in Manchester could offer us a little space so that we can share our experiences of refugee life. It is also my hope that the museum can help us foreign immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers to better understand the history, culture, tradition and customs of the British people, as well as the English language. Thousands of immigrants find it difficult to integrate into this new British society because of a lack of educational support, lack of material support and lack of equitable assistance which could be available if work is done to achieve this.
“This is why I would like to stress the urgency for each museum to be able to allocate a small space to have a service for immigrants and refugees to improve their situation. In terms of integration, it would help to have programs teaching the English language, culture and history of the United Kingdom. On the occasion of World Refugee Day, I ask and encourage those responsible for these platforms to help enrich the knowledge and experiences of refugees and immigrants.”
Jenny has also identified the research set forward by the International Council of Museums on how a museum is best suited to help refugees interact and engage with them. The five major point are addressed here, and it is Jenny’s belief that museums should look to implement some or all of the suggestions:
- Tell stories of refugees to as many audiences as we can reach, working in collaboration with refugees and those who support them (e.g. teachers, health care professionals, lawyers, etc.).
- Contextualise migration in history of all kinds, enlisting the public, especially city residents, in telling stories, including stories that underscore that we are all migrants – be it between countries, migrants from small towns to big cities, or, more conceptually, migrating to new and changing eras in world history.
- In storytelling, focus as much as possible on themes and commonalities as communities. Often, exhibitions are framed around the history and/or culture of a particular community. While these framings are valuable (and challenging) in their own right, they can sometimes re-inscribe differences between one community and another community, unless museum staff can render communities in the most nuanced ways and draw explicit commonalities.
- Take the museum outside the walls of museum buildings. It would make sense for museums to move outside of our buildings and into communities, including refugee camps.
- Conversely, our museum buildings can serve not only as exhibition spaces but also as meeting spaces for convening refugees and neighbours, and as a sites for education, including language classes, skills training and citizenship education. Museums shouldn’t necessarily be direct providers, but can be conveners and hosts, collaborating with local NGOs and educational institutions.
Jenny has spent the last fourteen years in the UK as an asylum seeker, and he is still waiting to find out whether he will be granted refugee status to remain in this country. He hopes that in the coming months, he will be given permission to stay so he can find a job and continue to run his human rights organisation.
Not only is Jenny a dear friend of mine, but he is an inspiration to me every day. He has suffered hardships and lost loved ones, but continues to believe that the world can and will be a better place if we work together to fight against impunity and injustice.
Congo’s Activist in Exile, a short documentary by Blue Shoes Productions.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
The plight of the refugee is one of the travesties of the twenty-first century, and more needs to be done to support those who have been forced to flee from tyranny and oppression in order to give them the best chance possible to begin the process of reconstruction in their lives. Manchester is home to a multitude of fantastic charities which provide legal support, mental wellbeing support, free clothing, and leisure activities for refugees living here (some of which have been listed below).
At Manchester Museum, we openly welcome refugees and asylum seekers from all backgrounds to visit us when we reopen so that we can offer a place of refuge, enjoyment, and learning, and so we can resume these conversations to continue to make Manchester the most welcoming and inclusive city in the country.
With thanks to Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu, founder of NICS, for speaking about his experience of refugeedom.
Find out more:
Check out these excellent charities which support refugees in Manchester:
For more about Jenny and his struggle to win freedom in his homeland:
For more about Manchester Museum’s work in telling refugee stories:
Jenny Dakosta Van Mputu
Directeur Exécutif National
Human Rights Activist-Founder and National Executive Director of ‘No Impunity for the Congolese State’ (NICS) – Human Rights Organisation.
Address: C/O RAPAR. 6 Mount Street, Manchester M2 5NS.
Phone: 00447405082590 / 00447490875889