Parallel Crossings is a collaborative dialogue between Moez Mrabat (Tunisia), Abdullah Al Kafri (Syria), Jonathan May and Jon Davis (UK) exploring the refugee and migration crisis and considering how artists and cultural organisations can and should be responding to the issue.
We began the collaboration in April 2015 as strangers, introduced to one another through the Tandem, Cultural Managers Exchange programme. Supported by Tandem and Arts Council England and British Council’s Artists International Development Fund we undertook three research labs that summer, spending a week together in Tunis, Beirut and London. These labs were focused on learning about one another and attempting to understanding the local context in each country, looking at how migration, the refugee crisis and national political agendas affect communities and the basic human right to movement. As well as employing an investigative approach into the reasons people chose to leave their own country, we wished to understand how artists were responding to this complex political and social issue and how arts organisations were supporting this work.
Tunis Lab – May 2015
Hosted by Moez we spent a week in the neighbourhood of Radès. One of the poorest areas in Tunis this community has seen the mass migration of young people undertaking the illegal journey to Europe across the Mediterranean for several decades. We met with a number of individuals compelled to take this dangerous route due to a lack of any meaningful future in Tunisia, including a man who had began ferrying people across the ocean. This young man did not resemble the vilified human traffickers we have been introduced to via the media, rather he was a disaffected youth who simply wished to travel for work and pleasure.
In this neighbourhood we also found a counterflow of migration, meeting a number of young people who had been groomed to undertake the journey to Syria to fight for Jihad. Tunisia has the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria, young men lured by the prospect of honour and money. In this place, where hope has been lost, the longing for a brighter future could either lead to Europe or to Syria.
During our stay we were also introduced to Dream City, a fantastic biennial festival taking place in Tunis’s old Medina exploring the politics of public space. We met with local and international artists undertaking a residency with the festival and developing work which responded specifically to Tunis’s urban issues.
Beirut Lab – August 2015
Our visit to Beirut was facilitated by Abdullah and focused on exploring the challenges facing Lebanon as it attempts to deal with the influx of Syrians since the war began in 2011. With the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, one in four people, Lebanon is struggling to cope with the weight of the newly arrived. During our stay we visited the Palestinian Shatila refugee camp originally created in 1949 and the new camps in the Bekaa valley. Again we met with a number of young Syrians on the brink of undertaking the journey to Europe, forced to leave due to increasing pressure from the Lebanese authorities.
The Lab was also aimed at exploring the role artists and arts organisations could play in responding to these challenging conditions. Beirut, a city which has long been an important centre of the arts in the Middle East, now hosts an array of artists all attempting to understand what their work can express in the face of such horrific reality. We met with a number of Lebanese and Syrian artists and cultural activists working in the city and internationally to explore the role of artists, the notion of ‘refugee artists’ and how arts spaces can survive in times of conflict and censorship.
London Lab – November 2015
During our final Lab hosted by Jonathan and Jon we explored the human rights issues surrounding detaining and deporting migrants and refugees. Taking a broader look at the UK’s policy in dealing with migrants we visited Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, the last stop for foreign nationals due for deportation, in addition to meeting with a host of organisations and individual helping to support the rights of those caught within the country’s complex immigrations laws.
To mark the close of this period of research we held a conversation event with Toynbee Studios inviting activists, artists and cultural operators to reflect on the role of the UK cultural scene in supporting and revealing the complex narratives around the refugee crisis. For the event we commissioned provocations from Abdullah, the British Council’s Director of Culture & Development Stephen Stenning, James Thompson the Professor of Applied and Social Theatre and Co-Founder of In Place of War, and the artist Tania el Khoury.