Meet the dancers who are making refugees welcome

The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants uses the arts to support refugees to make new lives - but government cuts mean it may be forced to close.

Honour Bayes
9 September 2015

A still from 'Border Tales', Protein's previous show dealing with themes of multi-cultural living. Credit:

As one ugly immigration headline after another tumbles onto our newsstands, it’s a horrible time to be seeking refuge in the UK. Even the haunting, viral picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body, found lying face-down on a beach near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, can’t budge David Cameron’s moral compass leftwards. 

Public opinion is shifting to a more welcoming stance. But even if you have been legally accepted into the country, it’s an increasingly tough time to be a migrant or refugee here.

Once people arrive they need more than just shelter. They need infrastructure that can pastorally support them as they make new lives in a new country. The Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants is the only charity in London offering free daily English language classes along with support services and hot meals. Its work is vital – now more than ever - but government cuts mean the centre may have to close.

I discovered the centre through its cultural commissions, which sees it incorporating dance, drama and music into the programme it offers its users. In July dance company Protein ran a three-week project there, connecting theatrical experiences with real life stories. The project aimed to improve the English language, creative and collaborative skills of a group of migrants and refugees.

The workshops and rehearsals took place over three weeks, with the first week seeing a number of people drop in and out before the core cast of seven was formed. The process culminated in a performance, titled 'There and Here', created by the group and dancers from Protein. ‘There and Here’ is a series of interweaving group, duet and solo contemporary dance pieces that shed light on some of the human stories behind migration. Participants ranged from eager young dancers in their 20s, to journalists and mothers in their 40s. Nationalities included Sudanese, Russian and Turkish. 

Some sections spoke of universal experiences when arriving somewhere new; a rushed movement sequence highlighted the intimidating nature of London’s busy streets. Others were more personal; one participant, Majid, curved his arm over his head again and again, each time his head bowed before rising up, communicating both protection and rebirth. 

I speak to him after the performance. He says its been a process that, without hyperbole and in his own words, changed his life. “This last week I’ve stopped all my physiotherapy appointments,” Majid explains. “I’m on medication but over the last three weeks I’ve felt stronger, in my body, mind and heart.”

Majid was a high profile journalist in Sudan for 20 years before being forced to flee, after being tortured by security services there. He believes that the centre and this project have enabled the participants to move on from their pasts and into a new tangible future. “For me this project was like a village that took me in when I was journeying to try to catch my life up, I feel I’ve got the key to open the next door. At the beginning I said 'I think this is going to change my life', and it really has.”

Transformation was a key narrative in some participants' journeys. Ivan is a wiry young Russian man whose nervy energy is both focused and slightly frantic. He was inspired to join the project after seeing Protein’s show 'Border Tales', and quickly moved from an isolated position to a central one as Protein artistic director. Luca Silvestrini explains. “Ivan’s in his element. At the centre people were saying Ivan would never talk to anyone or take part in the classes, he was withdrawn, he would just stay in the kitchen and not speak. Over the three weeks here Ivan has become the most interested in collaboration. He always has an opinion on everything, he talks to everyone".

Nastya, a young woman participant, agrees. “It’s great to have Ivan on the team and see how he has progressed so much. He’s a perfectionist, he demands a lot and that’s really challenging in a good way.” She’s softly spoken and tentative but the project has clearly given her confidence. Nastya believes this was possible because of the atmosphere that the team created during the process.

She speaks warmly about the process and is excited about the way it has created a community within the group that she feels will continue. “We’re definitely all friends and we’re going to stay friends,” Nastya says. “It was such a safe space that it became an opportunity to express what we have suppressed, which is very important.”

“For me the best moment was being able to create my own story from my sorrow,” she continues. “I presume art is to give us that possibility of taking all these bad memories or good memories and helping us to remember them because you are who you are and all that is part of you. To share that with others in a creative and inspirational way that doesn’t damage other people but that helps other people, is beautiful.” 

Silvestrini explains that to get the participants to this point was a delicate process. “To begin with we didn’t necessarily want to ask them to tell us their story of how they got here and where they’d come from. They wanted to do something positive and didn’t want to look back,” he says. 

“So at the start of the second week I started to introduce the idea of metaphor,” he continues. “Simple things like ‘when I arrived I felt like…and now I feel like…’ a very simple structure to put their feelings into and then some stories started to appear and we dropped those stories into the work. But I think it was good not to do that straight away on day one, because they need to start trusting you.”

‘There and Here’ not only helped the participants to deal with difficult pasts, but celebrated parts of it too. Silvestrini found that many of the participants felt they had to completely subsume their cultural heritage to fully assimilate into their new British one. ‘There and Here’ addressed this with an eclectic musical score: composer Anthar Kharana researched national music from within the group. This was most beautifully expressed in a folk dance that began as a duet between two Turkish women and then quickly widened into a group dance of celebration as the audience were invited to participate. 

Their aim was to show a way of viewing migrants and refugees as companions, rather than simply visitors, who can bring as much to the UK as the UK can to them. 

Watching ‘There and Here’ breeds an empathy within its audience that, as we enter a world where human displacement is a key humanitarian issue, is vital. But what happens next is a big question that worries Silvestrini and the participants. “It’s been such an incredible process,” Nastya says. “I’m worried about going back into the normal world after sharing all this. I think it needs to continue, we are all desperate for it to continue.”

Protein is dedicated to exploring avenues to enable this to happen in discussions as to how these fledgling dancers may be able to continue their training: but as ever, funding is an issue.

Dealing with issues of inclusion and community, ‘There and Here’ is an expression of the personal as well as the political. But with the threat of the closure looming over the dancers' heads, it’s now a powerful advert for the importance that the centre and its programmes play for both its users and their new neighbours – in other words, to us all.

Names have been changed for the safety of those involved.

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