For many, last week was about marking the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Even for staunch republicans, the long weekend provided an opportunity to think about what kind of nation we want to be in the future.
Are we a country that welcomes people, or one that closes our doors to those not born here?
One of the UK’s most famous (fictional) refugees took a starring role in the celebrations. Paddington Bear bonding with The Queen over a love of marmalade sandwiches. The film sparked some controversy, with many on social media highlighting the hypocrisy of this meeting against the backdrop of government plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. After all, the bear arrived as a stowaway on a boat, meaning he would be a criminal under the new Immigration and Borders Bill.
Thirty different nationalities were represented on the stage at the Party at the Palace when the Citizens of the World Choir sang with the band Elbow. The refugee choir, which advocates for understanding and dignity through music, used the opportunity to raise the voices of people seeking sanctuary and show a positive story of refugees on a global stage. They are looking to take this message of hope to a field at Glastonbury this year.
Across the city at the Mile Long Street Party in Walthamstow. Mbilla Arts and Stories and Supper curated the Rythm and Stories Tent, which featured music, poetry and spoken word. Highlights of the afternoon included a performance from Usifu Jalloh, a storyteller, performer and educator with his roots in Sierra Leone. He got the crowd on their feet with his unique storytelling, including music, dance, and multiple languages.
Speaking about the Jubilee, Usifu said there were several connections between his home country and the Royal Family. His school was called Prince William, and he fondly recalled a state visit from The Queen. However, the reflection was not all rose-tinted, and Usifu also shared stories of slavery, colonialism and war in Sierra Leone.
Stories and Supper used the space to share poems and stories from their book ‘In the Morning Birds Were Singing’. The themes included love, friendship, nature, family, food, and bittersweet memories of home.
Founder Helen Taylor opened the performance by explaining the background of the organisation, she told the crowd; “When we formed five years ago, the news was full of stories about Calais and the people trying to make dangerous journeys to reach the UK. Our mission was – and still is – to challenge these negative stories by creating spaces where alternative stories to be heard.”
Elsewhere across the country, refugees and asylum seekers were among those performing in St Luke’s Church, Southsea, to kick off a week of celebrations. They shared poetry, dance, music and drumming from their cultures, featuring people from The Refugee Hub run by Portsmouth City of Sanctuary.
The events above, along with possibly hundreds of others over the past week, show us that arts and culture have the power to inspire social change and enhance the inclusion and integration of refugees and migrants. Participatory art provides unique opportunities to bring together refugees, migrants and host populations.
A recent report from British Future to mark the Jubilee found that over half of the public felt that the Jubilee is the celebration that could most help bring people together in a year of many significant cultural and sporting events. A majority also think the royals can play a role in bridging divides between people from different backgrounds.
We at IMIX love storytelling in any form, and this is why we are so happy to be a national partner in this year’s Refugee Week celebrations on the theme of Healing.
We want to ensure that it is the story of hope and togetherness told by the people with lived experience of migration which gets amplified more than the negative news highlighting the hostile environment to which our favourite Paddington would have been a victim.