UK art therapy group moves online to support refugees in lockdown

By moving its art therapy sessions online, ARTconnects is ensuring it continues to deliver vital creative workshops for refugees and asylum seekers

'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters
© Zalma Zulfiqar

Faced with the Coronavirus lockdown and the cancellation of her in-person art therapy workshops, the only option for Birmingham based artist-activist Salma Zulfiqar was to shift online.

Zulfiqar started ARTconnects in 2017 to promote social cohesion, peace, tolerance, LGBTI rights, gender equality and general wellbeing. Her gatherings bring together asylum-seekers, refugees and other vulnerable individuals. So far over 100 sessions have taken place in Birmingham, Norwich, Manchester, London, Italy, Greece, France and the UAE.

The format is fluid, covering poetry, music, conversation, and art, under a binding theme or idea, interspersed with cameos from guest speakers. Participants are encouraged to share their creative work -- and talk. The aim is to reduce isolation, improve confidence and language skills, promote understanding of different cultures, combat stress and improve mental health, with the latter especially important during the Coronavirus lockdown.

“The idea is to promote global solidarity – we’re all in the same boat.” Zulfiqar said. “It’s a chance for everybody to connect with new people, show how we can support each other, stay positive and try to continue with life as best we can.”

The new format, conducted via Zoom, has held three sessions, and allows participants from as far afield as the US, Spain and Italy to participate. The first online sessions included inputs from the South Sudanese refugee rapper and actor Emmanuel Jal and the British actor, Michael Simkins, who starred in The Crown.

Jal described how war took most of his family, his descent into barbarism as a child soldier and how he came close to eating a comrade to survive. Redemption came after he met an aid worker and was eventually able to start anew in Canada.

“You must have a dream, vision, want and know your purpose and change your environment -- internal and external,” he said, adding he used his own trauma – which he calls “mental genocide” – “to create new pathways for communication.”

  • 'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters
    'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters © Zalma Zulfiqar
  • 'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters
    'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters © Zalma Zulfiqar
  • 'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters
    'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters © Zalma Zulfiqar
  • 'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters
    'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters © Zalma Zulfiqar
  • 'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters
    'Global Solidarity' - this image symbolises refugees and host communities coming together during the crisis - reaching out from stormy waters © Zalma Zulfiqar

He delivered a spoken word performance to the group: “Why are my people poor. Who’s to be blamed. Forced to sin to make a living. Sometimes you’ve got to lose to win. Never give up, never give in.”

Simkins read the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, after which he added: “I feel very, very at sea with all of this and I’m having to call upon reserves of strength – mental – that I’m not sure I’ve got… It’s a time when suddenly the old order – the complicated social network – is being pulled from under us for re-evaluation.”

Zulfiqar has long worked with refugees, including a stint working with Afghans for the UN in her native Pakistan. She showcased her project at the Global Refugee Forum hosted by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Geneva late last year and has run projects under the Peace One Day campaign supported by the UN. Her work has also won accolades from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and funding from Arts Council England, for the “Migration Blanket,” an initiative through which refugee women from around the world created an intricate canvas blanket depicting their journeys to safety.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19 there is an urgent need to support Refugee and Asylum Seeker communities -- in the UK and beyond -- who have been cut off from their usual support from charities,” she said. “Art workshops help people relax and get away from everything going on right now - social media, negative press, fake news. The point of this workshop is to be a bit upbeat and create an energy helping to change people’s moods and minds.

'Women With No Voice' by Zalma Zulfiqar. This is symbolic of the women suffering in silence and a call for better protection of women from abuse during the coronavirus crisis. She's reaching out to vulnerable and isolated refugee and asylum seeker women through ARTconnects.

'Women With No Voice' by Zalma Zulfiqar. This is symbolic of the women suffering in silence and a call for better protection of women from abuse during the coronavirus crisis. She's reaching out to vulnerable and isolated refugee and asylum seeker women through ARTconnects.  © Zalma Zulfiqar

One of the participants, Marwa, a Kurdish asylum seeker in the UK, said the sessions “helped me to be more social and talk confidently with people I don't know and meet people all over the world.” She added: “I learned how to express my opinion on this important issue in front of people online and I want to continue.”

Participants also have a chance to discuss daily challenges during lockdown, like shopping on a tight budget, keeping communal areas in shared accommodation clean, hurdles in social distancing and how to address a lack of official information.

“In just one and a half hours it helped us change our mood to being more positive and this is what we need right now in this terrible situation” said Amir, an Iranian refugee in the UK. “A smile can change someone’s day for the better.’’

ARTconnects is inviting new participants from the migrant-refugee community and Zulfiqar is planning a joint performance project. Those interested in supporting can donate to the group or make contact through the projects’ social media channels.