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Reversing the anti-refugee discourse with art

While Europe seems to be losing humanity in the face of a refugee crisis, a counter-wave of artistic events is emerging.

Syrian Refugees

by Rachel Shabi

Walking the streets of Palermo, Sicily, it is immediately obvious why this Italian island should be hosting its second festival of migrant literature this year.

The festival, on the Mediterranean island where thousands of migrants have arrived after perilous journeys by sea, is a showcase of migration's cultural heritage.

And the island itself is a living, breathing celebration of such heritage: a melting pot of different ethnicities, each adding their own layer of influence in the form of food, architecture, art, linguistic influence or economic development.

Roman, Greek and Phoenician empires all passed through Sicily. Then Muslim rule of the island turned it into a thriving, cosmopolitan centre of trade and left Arab signatures in the cuisine as well as on the streets, while the Normans, arriving in the 11th century, presided over a period in which art and architecture flourished, amalgamating Arab, Byzantine and western influences.

Various European rules came and went right up to the unification of Italy in the 19th century, each similarly drawn by Sicily's location in the heart of the Mediterranean.

Now, all this is practically in the DNA of the place, part of its spirit and identity: people come, people go; they add something to the mix, the blend is in itself innovative and the sum is intrinsically interconnected.

Migrating across place and time

And so a festival of migrant literature, held over four days last month in Palermo, is in keeping, a continuation of that line.

Some 150 writers with migrant backgrounds and from around the world brought a range of literary, creative and journalistic discussions to the city: Iraqi, Syrian and Lebanese novelists and satirists alongside Italian, Somalian, Senegalese, Turkish, Polish and Serbian writers and poets, as well as Nobel laureate, Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.

The festival's artistic director, Davide Camarrone, noted that literature and migration are in some sense synonymous, since literature, like people, migrates across place and time.

All of which is a bold and welcome counterpoint to the hostile, suspicious and scapegoating language around migration that has surfaced across Europe.

It's rare to see a focus on any benefits of migration, or the idea that an exchange between host communities and migrants might bring positives in both directions.
Faced with the largest refugee crisis since the World War II, with thousands fleeing warfare and persecution in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea and Afghanistan, the reaction around much of Europe has been a hardening of hearts and a bolstering of border patrols.

Whether it is wealthier nations such as Britain or France, or poorer European Union members such as Romania or Bulgaria, the comments are strikingly similar: countries are too full, refugees are someone else's problem and migrants are either a security threat, a terrible culture clash or a financial burden, to the extent that their arrival must be controlled or stopped entirely.

While individuals and organisations have often - as is the case in Sicily - stepped in to help, the EU's approach to the refugee crisis has been disastrous, failing to share responsibility regardless of where migrants first arrive.

And far-right politicians, in concert with tabloid papers, mainstream a constant supply of hatred and anxiety over the issue.

No focus on the benefits of migration

Even when the discussion around the migration crisis softens, when there are moments of sympathy - such as the widespread outpouring of emotion over images of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, a year ago - the context is of refugees as desperate and in need.

It is rare to see a focus on any benefits of migration, or the idea that an exchange between host communities and migrants might bring positives in both directions.

Stories that do illuminate potential benefits stand out: a recent example being a report on how immigration helped fuel an economic boom in Sweden, which took in more migrants per capita than any other European nation last year.

Still, set against all that, cultural festivals with a focus on migrants are popping up across Europe. Italy has already hosted two such literary festivals alongside the Palermo event: in Milan and in Mantua, Lombardy, earlier this year.

London is hosting its first migration film festival this month, while international film festivals from Edinburgh to Berlin have this year focused on the issue.

These join long-established calendar events, such as Luxemburg's massive migrant and cultures festival now in its 33rd year, or Slovenia's migrant film festival, an international event held on world refugee day since 2010.

It seems fitting that, while Europe collectively appears to be losing a sense of humanity in the face of a refugee crisis, a counter-wave of literary and artistic events is emerging, where the human wealth, the cultural assets and the knowledge that newcomers bring are acknowledged, explored and celebrated.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel's Jews from Arab Lands.


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