From exile in European cities to remote camps in embattled Myanmar, refugees facing every level of threat have created autonomous projects—zines—writing and reading together to site their politics by any means possible. In “Kachin State: the Curse of Geography,” ArtsEverywhere editor Siddhartha Joag recalled the art and writing workshops he encountered among refugees caught between Chinese armies and the Kachin Free Army at Myanmar’s contested border with China. Largely unseen and independent of any consequences, their work together let them become “participants in their own political discourse, opening the possibility of a political identity.” In this piece for the Polity of Literature, Sidd expands his scanning beyond Kachin State to include examples from the vast Bidi Bidi refugee camps in Uganda; the Plaza Girls zine from survivors of the Moria Camp in Lesbos, Greece; and Bangladeshi and Iranian writers working in exile in Scandinavia. As with the children of Terezín, who made and shared zines while in a Nazi death camp, the actions of writing and reading together constitute a realm of politics still within the grasp of putatively “powerless” refugees.
As the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in 2011, artists and writers came to the forefront, bearing witness to mass political upheaval and acting as leaders within the revolutions. At the time, I ran an organization called freeDimensional which supported artists, cultural workers, and activists who, as advocates for social justice and defenders of human rights, face repression and violence. We received dozens of requests for support in 2011, a number that continued to rise steadily in the following years. Many of the artists and writers we supported had already been forced to leave their homelands and were living as refugees or political asylees, mostly in western Europe.
The difficulties they faced were multiple. Many were unable to find gainful employment in their host countries, making their creative practice untenable. Many suffered chronic health problems and untended injuries from police interrogations, imprisonment, torture, and willful neglect, exacerbated by poor living conditions in detention centres and refugee camps. But by far the greatest difficulty for most was the psychosocial impact of being separated from their families and community—being forced to flee quickly without time to plan or pack, then finding themselves in an unfamiliar and oftentimes hostile new landscape, uncertain if or when they would ever be able to return home. Some suffered an overwhelming sense of political impotency, rooted in the steady obliteration of their artistic identity as the ordeal of forced exclusion rose to define them personally and professionally—now they were “refugee artists.”
Many of the organizations and networks that support at-risk artists and writers focus on immediate needs, such as health, housing, and legal aid. Their support is results-based. The importance of cultural connectivity and political participation is more difficult to measure, so it’s often overlooked; but the need is indisputable. Imagine a writer from Zimbabwe finding himself in a small Scandinavian town, without a community to engage, in a drastically different climate, with language barriers and little or no access to foodways or familiar cultural practices. While safe from the impending risk at home, the individual is now at risk of sociocultural isolation and its damaging psychological manifestations. As time in exile draws out, feelings of invisibility become pervasive and further debilitating. In this context, autonomous platforms for political dialogue can open what Hannah Arendt called, “the space of appearance,” in which individuals can become political—that is, become visible in public as equals in conflict.
Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, known professionally as Tutul, is a Bangladeshi publisher and writer who founded the award-winning publication Shuddhashar. In 1990, Shuddhashar gained a following as part of the “little magazine movement” in Bangladesh. By 2004, they had established a reputable publishing house and would print over a thousand publications in the ensuing decade. In 2015, after several prominent bloggers were killed by Islamic extremists, including his colleagues Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy, Tutul was attacked by a mob in his office in Dhaka. He barely escaped being hacked to death with machetes. He fled to Nepal and eventually was relocated to Skien, Norway, by the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Unable to publish in Bangladesh, Tutul turned his efforts to establishing Shuddhashar‘s online platform as a space where he and his forcibly displaced colleagues could publish their work. Shuddhashar‘s web magazine has grown into a communicative ecology for refugee writers to continue to produce work that reaches new audiences and creates a space of appearance for a community forcibly excluded from politics in their homelands and often in the countries where they relocate.
Via a similar path, Iranian journalist Parvin Ardalan became ICORN’s first guest writer in the Swedish city of Malmö. An editor and human rights activist, Ardalan faced persistent persecution for her work denouncing gender apartheid in Iran. She was imprisoned in Iran in 2007 on charges of “threatening national security.” Upon release in 2009, she relocated to Malmö with the help of ICORN. In 2013, Ardalan launched 100 Years of Immigrant Women’s Life and Work in Malmö, a compilation of texts and images that document and celebrate the lives of immigrant women. For Ardalan, it was a way to continue her activism and craft by engaging with displaced lives in her new country, sparking a critical dialogue across their varied yet often parallel experiences.
Without the support and advocacy of ICORN, Tutul’s and Ardalan’s projects would have been far more challenging. Most refugees are not respected writers and artists with access to grants, awards, and residency programs or the largesse of the literary and art worlds. However, the proliferation of the Internet, fueled by a generation of tech-savvy refugees, has resulted in the creation of new digital spaces in which to share writing and art. One example, from 2018, is Plaza Girls, a web “zine” created by a group of young women who were transferred from the overcrowded Moria Refugee Camp on Lesbos Island to temporary housing at the Plaza Hotel squat in Athens.
The voices of young Arab women are routinely excluded from popular political discourse in the MENA region. Rather than pry their way into existing political spaces, the Plaza Girls manifested one of their own. It comprised not only the published zine, which circulated in various forms, but the intensely social space of its making. Chloe Ruthven, a volunteer who worked with the Plaza Girls, recalled the lively, unrestrained political exchanges of their working sessions in her fascinating “Plaza Girls — a Diary,” originally published in April 2018. Their most recent issue, The Moria Issue, weaves together reportage, poetry, and satire to show the psychosocial texture of forced displacement. The intelligence, wit, and sense of purpose conveyed by Plaza Girls is absent from most conventional news reports. As with the children of Terezín, these putatively “powerless” young people gave themselves the power to be political simply by choosing to speak and act together through their zine.
I’m writing a diary That remains one day And says we had the Plaza Girls — Plaza Girls, issue #2
Digital platforms like these help preserve culture across continents despite geographic distance and limited mobility. Since the civil war broke out in 2011, over five million Syrians have fled the country, scattering to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and across Europe. Syrian installation artist Khaled Barakeh was studying in Germany when violent conflict broke out in Syria. Given the political nature of his work and the sustained attacks against artists and writers by the Assad regime, Barakeh was unable to return home. Sharing the urgency of his colleagues who had been forcibly displaced, adrift in an uncertain future, he founded the online platform coculture.
Based in Berlin, coculture operates as an umbrella for a variety of artistic and curatorial initiatives addressing the “different facets of the challenges faced by displaced cultural producers.” Barakeh and his newly-formed team are currently developing the Syrian Culture Index (SCI), an interactive database and communications platform for displaced artists from Syria and the larger MENA region. SCI will function as a repository for Syrian artists and writers to share their work with colleagues and develop collaborations with other refugees. Corollary to this database coculture has created the Syrian Biennial, a traveling exhibition that links different cities to which Syrian refugees have migrated. A third project, “Through Solidarity, We Survive,” offers a platform for artists to express the social, political, and cultural effects of COVID-19, with a focus on those living in exile amidst lockdowns, quarantines, and polarizing politics.
After fraught and treacherous journeys, refugee artists and writers who relocate to cities in Europe and North America often find increased access to cultural institutions and other support structures. This helps them integrate into local communities and find the resources to develop initiatives like coculture. However, such resources are rarely available to refugees finding exile in poorer countries. This can be particularly true of Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) who are often marooned indefinitely in dilapidated, ramshackle camps with no education or employment, barely surviving off of rations provided by the state or international NGOs.
In the northernmost region of Myanmar, a series of desolate IDP camps stretch along the border between Kachin State and China. Sixty years of civil war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military junta has left hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kachin displaced and struggling for sovereignty in the face of cultural extermination. For the Myanmar military the resource-rich territory at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River is too lucrative to relinquish. Some areas are controlled by the Myanmar military and others by the KIA, both of which have a vested interest in keeping the conflict alive and keeping the refugees in limbo—as expendable leverage—political pawns on whose lives no value is placed.
In Laiza, a small town in the jungle on the China border, generations of Kachin refugees have grown up in the narrow crosshairs of two warring armies. The news, reliable information, arts, and culture are nearly non-existent. What little outside information makes it to refugees in the camp is obtained via unreliable smartphone connections. Anthropologist and visual artist, Fu Guosheng, began working with youth in Laiza in 2010. She soon realized that these young people might never travel or relocate to see the world beyond Laiza, and had no appropriate psychological support. Guosheng began bringing pencils and A4 paper to the camp, asking young people to simply write down how they were feeling. This was a question they had never been asked before—one she understood to be a political act in and of itself. Eventually she partnered with a local NGO and secured funding for paint and canvas to use in painting and writing workshops focused on themes related to the experience of violent conflict and forced displacement.
I visited there in 2019. Gathered together in a dusty, dimly lit, ramshackle classroom, drawing and writing to their experiences and sharing their work with peers, the young people of Laiza are participants in their own political discourse, opening the possibility of a political identity. Through these brief but repeated interactions, the youth find a space for respite from the brutality inflicted upon them by external political forces.
In the past ten years Fu Guosheng has worked with thousands of youth in Laiza and other camps in Kachin State, amassing a collection of close to 20,000 works. The pieces reflect both the horrors of war and the ways in which young people hold on to hope and imagine a future of their own making. Paintings and poetry from these workshops have been published in magazine and book form as well as being exhibited in cities in Myanmar, Thailand, China, and France. Guosheng has on occasion been able to raise money to bring some of the young artists from the camps to attend the exhibitions. For most, it is their first time leaving Laiza, with the added thrill of being valued as artists and writers—to see their work in print and on display—and to have the chance to communicate with people far beyond the confines of the camp. Because the rebel army and the military go to great lengths to keep the situation in the camps hidden and their residents silent, the presentation of the paintings and poetry are one of the only ways they can become visible in a public discourse as the audience engages with their texts and images.
Refugee camps come in many configurations. Unlike Laiza, which despite being rural is tightly packed, the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northern Uganda is a sprawling 275-square-kilometre expanse of land, home to more than 250,000 predominantly South Sudanese refugees. The camp is comprised of five zones between which there is no affordable or consistent form of public transportation. Basic materials for artmaking—pen, ink, paper, paint—are not readily available in the camp, which is a three-hour drive from the closest city.
Ray Styles is a South Sudanese storyteller and aspiring young filmmaker. He was forced to discontinue his studies in 2016 when violent conflict broke out in the capital, Juba. His father was killed and he was separated from his mother. After escaping indentured servitude with the rebel army, he made his way across the border to Uganda and found his way to a UN refugee meeting centre deep in the forest. After being transferred to the Bidi Bidi Resettlement, he dedicated himself to bringing the stories of refugees living in the camp to the outside world. Using a digital camera with a broken screen and his own cell phone, he set off on a week-long journey (the first of many to come) to conduct his own survey of Bidi Bidi. Making stops at each zone along the way, he called ad-hoc meetings to spark dialogue with others from various, sometimes hostile, ethnic backgrounds, introducing the idea of visual storytelling through workshops. While recording interviews, Ray recruited other young people to join this grassroots cultural movement.
Ray is gradually building a community with what limited resources he has. Utilizing Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, he posts short videos produced with Bidi Bidi residents, while assembling a network of young people, filmmakers, artists, and activists in adjacent camps, also in the region and internationally. It presents, in some ways, a new articulation of the concept of the “zine,” manifesting as social media exchanges. Riddled with memes and gifs, chat chains have become “scrapbooks” of content collectively assembled by young people to express their relationships with, and perspectives on, popular culture and current events.
In Bidi Bidi, preexisting political hostilities between regional ethnic groups—Dinka, Nuer, Equatorian—persistently pose challenges to peaceful resettlement. Ray’s approach is to disregard ethnicity in his organizing. He begins every session with the immutable question: “Why do people kill?” a provocation that is both neutral in relation to ethnicity and ubiquitous in relation to the war in South Sudan. Sitting under the canopy of a large acacia tree in Bidi Bidi, Ray and his recruits convene a space for political discourse to lay bare the shared physical and emotional experience of forced displacement and the trauma of survival. Despite the ethnic violence that brought these warring tribal groups together, it seems to be a common sentiment that they don’t want to continue fighting. Rather, they see Bidi Bidi through Ray’s lens of optimism, as having the potential to be a peaceful refugee territory. This is of particular importance as the conflict in South Sudan drags on and loses attention (and therefore any support) in the international news media so that refugees increasingly are left to their own devices (or kept on life support by meagre government and NGO charities). Ray harbours no illusion that sharing these stories through video will change the situation from the outside. But the activity itself creates a new politics engendering hope. Further, Ray says, “sharing our stories with the world is the only way we get to communicate with the world.”
Considering the preexisting isolation and poverty that young people in Laiza and Bidi Bidi endure, the global COVID-19 pandemic has thrown down additional obstacles to convening and co-creating. Already meagre rations in the camps have been reduced as transport in and out has been restricted heavily. This will undoubtedly result in worsening health conditions and loss of life, while pressures to survive will exacerbate tensions in families and between neighbours who come from varying tribal groups. With schools not fully operational, the few creative outlets on offer for young people take no priority. Given the churning confluence of social dysphoria affecting these communities presently, creative outlets could serve to mediate psychosocial trauma and provide the community with useful information on health and safety. But even those NGOs that do incorporate art and cultural activities into their programs rarely recognize these modes of survival as essential. Further, they often go to great lengths to stifle political discourse, for fear that inter-ethnic tensions might explode. They often impose restrictions on open dialogue and institute transactional systems of charity and compliance. Ray’s organizing practice is an act of resistance to this denial of refugee agency.
At the same time, new challenges—social distancing, working from home, remote learning, and other transformations brought about by COVID-19—hold some promise to expand the increasingly innovative digital artistic and literary spaces online. This might not be as beneficial for young people in places like Laiza and Bidi Bidi, but it could circumvent the scarcity of materials in most places. For groups like the Plaza Girls it could act as a catapult for their artistic and literary pursuits. They will face an increasingly treacherous landscape of surveillance, censorship, and draconian social control that threatens to mute political dialogue on social justice and human rights issues.
“Day by Day,” laments the Bangladeshi publisher in exile, Tutul, “Bangladesh is going to hell.” He means the authoritarian regime that’s kept the same party in power for thirteen years. COVID-19 has opened the door to increased social control and a crackdown on writers and artists critical of the government. In June, Mustaq Ahmed, a writer and commentator, and the political cartoonist, Kabir Kishore, were arrested and detained for critiquing the government’s handling of the pandemic—in a Facebook post. And they are among the lucky. In Bangladesh, extrajudicial killings are a daily occurrence. Yet Tutul holds steadfast to the power of literacy. He believes in “reading and writing’s unique process in changing [people’s] mentality and way of thinking, and its role in improving society.” Tutul believes that, in a time of expanding digital media and inarguable political urgency, “younger generations will become readers again. How do we give them the information and knowledge? We need to improve our technique.”