“Carry my joy on the left, carry my pain on the right” – Björk
Earlier this year I found myself at a round table in Coventry Cathedral in the English Midlands, holding up a plastic sign that said ‘Should we stop focusing on pain?’ The occasion was Refugee Week Conference, and the sign had been handed to me by one of the teenage volunteers hosting the day, who had identified this as one of six questions from the morning’s conversations they felt warranted further discussion.
As the table filled with people who were, like me, drawn to this question, I wondered how I might respond. I am coordinator of Refugee Week, a national festival that seeks to celebrate the talents, perspectives and cultural richness that displaced people bring to the UK. We hope that by making celebration our starting point, we might create a space where refugees are seen neither as threats nor passive victims, but as whole human beings who have the power to contribute, and are not defined by their suffering.
But as I tried to articulate to the community workers and cultural activists gathered with me under the high cathedral ceiling, it didn’t feel that simple. We are working in a context where people seeking safety are left to drown, or locked up without a time limit, separated from their families and forced to live in poverty. Without acknowledging the injustice and the pain that is integral to the refugee experience, talk of ‘celebration’ can feel out of touch with reality.
The response from the group in Coventry will stay with me for a long time. While our interests and experiences lay in different areas – the arts, media, support work and campaigning – the question of pain and how central it should be to our work was one that all of us had faced. The woman next to me, once new to the UK herself, spoke of how she approached her work supporting local refugee and asylum-seeking women.
“I start by telling them they are strong,” she said. “I remind them of everything they have achieved and everything they still have. There has to be a space for the pain, but it is not our starting point. We create a space for it so it doesn’t dominate everything.”
There has to be a space for the pain. That sentence spoke to us. A woman who supports young refugees and asylum seekers told of how an artist had helped the teenagers use creativity to express and process difficult memories. It was a positive experience, but now there were offers of more projects from further artists that she would probably turn down.
“The young people just want to play football and have fun,” she said. The pain could have a place without being the focal point for everything they did.
To my right, a woman who helped run a local refugees welcome group compared the attempt to balance joy and pain in an initiative like Refugee Week to the struggle to do so within an individual. The Syrian families she worked with didn’t want to keep reliving difficult memories, but at the same time, these experiences were part of who they were. Some of the men in her group didn’t want to dance and sing – ‘how can we when our people are still suffering?’ Others needed to be reminded of the parts of them that weren’t defined by pain.
I thought of my own life, of my husband and his friends and family from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus. We often sing and play music when we’re with them, in spite and because of the loss. How can we sing, after everything that’s happened? How can we not sing?
I thought of my struggle to find a way to talk about the destroyed lives and homes ‘there’ to friends and family ‘here,’ to find a place for this experience in our UK lives - the flatmates who had never once mentioned our relatives living under siege; the family friends who asked about the war as soon as they’d shaken my husband’s hand. All probably had the best of intentions, unsure – like us – of where this conversation belonged. There has to be a space for the pain – but where?
Refugees or not, war or not, we all have wounds that we carry around, and with them a tension: we want them to be acknowledged, but we don’t want them to define who we are. We want our pain to be seen, but not all that is seen; for others to care about but never pity us.
I suppose the answer – simply and not at all simply – is that we must carry both together: pain and joy, grief and celebration, anger and thankfulness in our work as well as in our bodies and personal lives, but how? I don’t have a clear answer to that question. Perhaps, like many such problems, it’s less a matter of finding a simple solution and more about asking yourself the question over and over again.
I sent a draft of this article to a friend who used to run an academic programme for displaced people, and she told me how she and her team had (rightly) insisted on treating participants as ‘students’ before ‘refugees,’ but had then struggled when traumatic experiences found their way into essays, presentations and classroom discussions.
My friend concluded that while it was right to frame the group primarily as students, there needed to be a deliberate opening up of space for discussion and reflection among the staff about how they responded to pain in these young people – and, indeed, in themselves. The students’ ‘refugee-ness’ should be acknowledged and attended to, without it defining who they were. She ended by reflecting that pain is an essential part of all of our lives, and suggesting that this discussion was not limited to work with refugees, but “perhaps more broadly a call for emancipatory, feminist, care-based pedagogies within the university.”
At Counterpoints Arts, which coordinates Refugee Week and where I work, we hope art can provide a space where people can share their experiences on their own terms, and where pain can sit alongside joy. It’s important that artists who are refugees are heard when they sing, paint or write about hardship and injustice, while also being free to make work about other topics; that they are allowed to use, discard and disrupt the ‘refugee’ label as they choose.
A current project with Camden People’s Theatre called ‘No Direction Home’ runs stand-up comedy workshops with people who are refugees and migrants, with public performances at the theatre every month. One barrier to sharing painful experiences (particularly in British culture) is the sympathetic yet awkward silence that often follows. Humour has a way of blowing this away, with shared laughter creating connection rather than alienation or pity. The tough experiences sit alongside the more mundane: all human, all relatable, all belonging to the storyteller.
What about in my personal life? I spoke about this piece with my husband. He said that war and loss are there when he wakes up and when he sleeps, and that there’s a daily battle between the part of him that is ‘here’ and the part that is still ‘there’ in Syria. There are moments when he has to block out the dark memories and thoughts in order do what is necessary to build a life here. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival.
For my part, I don’t feel particularly proud of how I have engaged with the suffering of friends and family in Syria. Too often it has been easier to close internet tabs or leave books unread because I don’t feel like or have time ‘to be sad right now.’ As someone who is well-supported and lucky to be in good mental health, there’s a fine line between self-care and choosing not to see something because it’s more comfortable that way, a line I would like to be better at treading. For me personally, ‘finding a place for the pain’ involves choosing to face it more often.
We are about to have our second child. Our daughter and son will grow up with double displacement running deep in their family history, but in a daily reality that is hopefully stable and safe. I will find it easy not to talk to them about upsetting things.
But I also want to help them hold these two realities in one body - to be grateful without forgetting, and to speak about Tantoura, Damascus and Birmingham in one breath.
I don’t have a clear answer for how to do this though. I’ll keep on trying.