|Hodan Omar from Somalia/Credit: Caroline Irby @carolineirby|
If you are in London July 12-18, come and see “Freedom is not easy” - an exhibition of portraits and interviews of refugees living in London. My friend photographer Caroline Irby represented 12 refugees in the various places where they first felt free or safe after arriving in this city. The portraits are accompanied by interviews I’ve made, capturing their stories of flight, readjustment to a new life, as well as the moment each refugee first felt safe or at home here.
There are an estimated 120,000 refugees in the UK, and last year some 32,414 applied for asylum. For most, life is not easy. Unemployment in refugee communities is above 50% (5.1% is the national average), and in 2015, the British Red Cross supported more than 9,000 who were destitute. Yet some keep striving and pulling through, and successfully make new lives here.
Caroline and I have worked together on a number of humanitarian stories overseas and in the UK. We have travelled widely with our work, particularly in Africa and Asia where we have seen some of the causes that trigger people to flee their homes, and visited the camps where refugees and displaced people find shelter - usually in their own countries or in neighbouring states. But some refugees move further: some cross the Sahara, the Mediterranean and the Channel, and now live here in London.
We wanted to meet some of the refugees who have settled here, to learn what propels them to move so far, and to hear about their experiences of seeking - and sometimes finding - freedom, safety and a home in this city.
At a time when politicians and the media too often dehumanise refugees by referring to them as an anonymous mass, we wanted in our small way to restore some of their identities by giving these 12 refugees a face and a voice. We also wanted to show how strong and resilient refugees have to be in order to make it here. The men and women featured in the exhibition also demonstrate that if they require some help to settle in the country, they also bring fresh energy, knowledge, talent and tremendous potential.
We also wanted to support Breaking Barriers, the charity which is putting together this exhibition. They are helping refugees to find meaningful employment, matching their skills. So many refugees told us that finding a "real" job was one of the main factors that helped them integrate and feel at home.
Here is what Hodan Omar, a young woman from Somalia, told us about the internship she found through Breaking Barriers:
"As a refugee, all you hear is negative: everything seems to conspire to put you down, so you think that maybe they are telling the truth, that you are never going to make it. But at Source8, I felt positive. They made me feel at ease. They trusted me with important things. I felt capable. It freed me of that negative cloud. Yesterday was my last day there, but I’ve gained skills, experience and confidence. Now, I am hopeful I can find a good job."
Some of the portraits/stories in this exhibition are featured in the summer issue of Positive News magazine and on their website. You can read them here.
“Freedom is not easy” at the Archivist's Gallery, 2-10 Hertford Road, London N1 5ET, 11-18th July 2016 from 10 am to 6pm.