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For refugees, Manchester’s art and creativity make it a home


For refugees, Manchester’s art and creativity make it a home

Community Arts North West welcomes refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants into its broad range of cultural programmes, offering connection, community, creativity, and belonging.
11 October 2023
Seven women pose for a photo around an outdoor ping pong table.

Some of the women of CAN, from left, Michelle, Mahboobeh, Katherine, Stella, Cilla, Sara and Sue.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — “Manchester is so welcoming,” says 35-year-old Mahboobeh. “The communities here embrace you without thinking about where you are from.”
Women poses for photo.

Mahboobeh, pictured in HOME Manchester.

Mahboobeh was taking a degree in theatre studies when she was forced to flee Iran, arriving in Manchester as an asylum-seeker in 2009. Feeling lost in a new country, “I had this big, heavy feeling of not having documentation and not belonging to a country,” she says.

Her hoped-for career in the arts was surely over, it seemed, but then she discovered Community Arts North West (CAN), a small, dynamic arts and social justice organisation that has sought to make a difference to people’s lives since its founding in 1978. An open-minded organisation in the heart of a diverse city, “Nobody asked me, ‘Are you a refugee or asylum-seeker?’,” Mahboobeh recalls. She started by volunteering and, after working on the production of several arts projects, joined the staff as a Creative Producer. “They made me feel involved,” she says.

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Involvement with CAN made Mahboobeh feel part of something again and enabled her to express her creativity, despite the precarious situation she was in as a refugee. With CAN’s support she soon made her debut short film (a dark comedy about her relationship with her grandmother) and showcased it at a local screening event: for the first time since leaving Iran, she felt like an artist whose work mattered, who had a future, no matter her journey or background. Mahboobeh has continued to explore ideas and express herself since, through theatre direction, film, and digital art.

Yet much of CAN’s work is not so much about individual artists as about the connections that art can catalyse, says Michelle, also a Creative Producer. She exercises her passion for connecting people to each other, and to the city they live in, by taking newcomers on a tour of Manchester’s many art spaces. “I like taking groups to the places where I know they might think, ‘Oh this isn't for me.’ I want people to feel cemented in their city,” says Michelle.

Every year, CAN organises the Horizons Festival, a two-day celebration of refugee, asylum-seeker and migrant artists who have made Manchester their home. The festival is co-produced by, and hosted at, a prominent arts centre, cinema, theatre, and gallery—aptly called HOME—in the buzzing heart of the city. “Horizons celebrates the contribution of people who are new to the country,” says Katherine, the festival’s Co-Creative Producer. She explains that CAN describes participants as “international artists”, recognising the richness of the different perspectives they bring.

This year’s theme, ‘We Are All Manchester’, was chosen by the artists themselves and brought together music, theatre, dance, visual arts, film, spoken word performance, family friendly workshops and discussion events. and the spoken word. For her part, Mahboobeh presented ‘My MCR Love Letter’, an ode to both Manchester and her hometown in Iran in the form of a video montage with voiceover.  

CAN’s Co-Founder, Cilla, says that creating the kind of cross-cultural experiences that characterise Horizons and forging human connections has been key to the organisation’s success over decades. “Arts can be a way for people to heal,” she says. “Lots of groups say that their creativity has helped them find a place in this country.”

Woman poses leaning against a canal lock, with skyscraper in the background.

“I think more attention needs to be given to the fact that a lot of people in this country do welcome people,” says Cilla, co-founder of CAN.

Two women stand for a photo outdoors, with an old factory in the background.

Mahboobeh stands with Maliha, one of the participants in the Voices of Women of Rochdale project, who came to watch Mahboobeh’s performance and support her, along with several others.

This is what CAN has done from the start, embracing and working with new arrivals to the city. As an organisation founded to champion community arts in North West England, working across cultures and communities has always been at the heart of their work. “One of the successes of CAN is bringing communities together. People who don't usually mix outside of their demographics have loved making friends across communities,” says Cilla.  

Mahboobeh’s own experience at CAN reflects this, opening her up to new people and new art forms, introducing her to artistic expression from all over the world and helping her make wide-ranging connections. It is an experience she is eager to pass on. At this year’s Horizons Festival, South Asian elders from the Rochdale Women’s Voices group, which Mahboobeh runs, attended workshops and showed their support for Mahboobeh and the other artists at the evening showcase.

Horizons is just one way in which CAN promotes integration. Whatever the format—whether workshops or professional training, art festivals or youth programmes—they all demonstrate the belief that there are limitless ways of welcoming people through art and creativity. The message of openness, tolerance, and diversity is simple, says Cilla: “The best projects are when you bring different people together.”