Ten Reasons for the Arts in Refugee Camps
By Awet Andemicael
Last year, I conducted research for UNHCR (available online at http://www.unhcr.org/4def858a9.html), which suggests that artistic activity often plays a powerful positive role in the lives of refugees living in camps, and can help them survive and even thrive emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
Of course, arts cannot solve every problem, nor can they provide quick fixes. Some activities require equipment and training difficult to obtain in camps. And people who wish to cause conflict can use the arts to promote their divisive agendas.
But even if you are not a trained or professional artist, if you live in a refugee camp, there are many good reasons to get involved in the arts, whether music, poetry, dance, painting, drawing, or other creative activity. Here are ten reasons why I believe refugees in camps should participate in artistic activity:
- Artistic activity is your right. Artistic and cultural expression is a human right, protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Artistic activity helps you use your time creatively and productively. When productive activity and employment are limited, refugee-initiated artistic activity is one way to use time productively and creatively, focusing energy and talent toward meaningful ends. In addition, celebrating annual festivals with artistic presentations can keep you engaged in the cycles of time from which you can be easily disconnected during the long waiting periods involved in camp life.
- Artistic activity can help you cope with the psychological and emotional stresses of living in a refugee camp. Given the prevalence of trauma among refugees in camps, healing is a major priority for refugees’ individual and communal wellbeing. Although artistic activity cannot substitute for psychiatric therapy and care, participating in such activity—whether private or public, formal or informal—can help provide a means to express painful and pleasant emotions, to confront difficult memories, and sometimes to find relief from unbearable burdens.
- Artistic activity can be good for your soul. Taking part in religious observance and rituals can be an important part of your spiritual life, and the artistic components of such rituals—religious songs, poetic prayers, spiritual dances, decorated religious implements, etc.—play a key role in engaging the sense in worship and contemplation. Celebrating religious festivals with creative expression and festive processions can help connect you to the religious tradition of which you are part and the religious community you may have left behind.
- Artistic activity can help you preserve your traditional culture while you are away from your native land. Singing traditional songs, making traditional handicrafts, using traditional languages to compose poetry and other literature, can help preserve your cultural heritage. It can also help you pass on your cultural practices to your children, even if they have never seen or no longer remember their homeland.
- Artistic activity can help you create a sense of community with other refugees in your camp. While overemphasizing differences between groups in a refugee camp may cause strife and division, artistic activity can also provide opportunities to share your culture with others in gestures of friendship. Participating in cultural and artistic activities from other cultures can help you learn about your neighbors in the camp, and help you appreciate the contributions they bring. In addition, artistic activity can help community members discuss difficult, awkward, or taboo subjects. Rather than tell people what to do and what not to do, one can, for example, put on a drama which shows a certain harmful practice, and its effects on the people involved. This may invite conversation about the issue, giving community members the freedom to discuss the issue indirectly, by means of the drama. Once the silence around the issue has been broken, and a certain level of comfort is attained, then the issue may be addressed more directly. Similarly, artists can use stories, songs, dances, visual arts, and other means to bring up sensitive issues and open them up for consideration and discussion.
- Artistic activity could help create bridges between refugee and host communities. Similarly, sharing your cultural and traditional artistic practices with members of the host community, and learning about their artistic activities, may help create bridges between refugee and host communities.
- Artistic activity can help children learn. The use of songs, pictures, and other artistic devices may help children learn their lessons more effectively, by enabling them to use their imaginations and their senses more completely than they can with less creative learning methods. It is also easier to learn and remember information in the form of poems and songs, and participatory practices, such as acting out sketches and dramas, can help students experience their lessons more vividly and engage them as active agents in their own learning. In addition, children whose educations have been interrupted by forced migration or other conditions may have special learning challenges, as well as trauma which must be addressed, for which the use of the arts as educational and therapeutical tools is well-suited. Finally, artistic and creative learning is fun, and can hold children’s attention for longer periods of time than more tedious educational activities.
- Artistic activity can help adults learn and develop behaviors that foster physical, psychosocial, and community health and wellbeing. For many of the same reasons that artistic activity can be an effect way for children to learn, the arts present many opportunities for adults to learn. But learning is not limited to academic subjects. Important information and the development of beneficial approaches to personal hygiene, disease prevention, family relations, inter-generational and inter-gender relations, inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue, and other social concerns can be shared effectively through the arts (music, street drama, poetry, posters, etc.) Especially in refugee communities in which literacy levels are low, oral means of communicating information may be more effective than pamphlets and other text-oriented methods. Also, because songs and poems are easy to remember, the messages everyone in the community needs to know may remain longer in people’s memory if disseminated artistically. The more and longer you remember, the more likely it is that your behavior will change accordingly, enabling you to experience a positive transformation in your habits and attitudes.
- Artistic activity may help you prepare for life beyond the camp. Whether or not you end up working as a professional in the highly competitive fields of the literary, visual or performing arts, the skills you learn from engaging in artistic activity—discipline, creativity, patience, etc.—may serve you well once you leave the camp as a resettled or repatriated person.
Awet Andemicael is an Eritrean-American musician and graduate student in theology at Yale University, USA.