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Forced to Flee: Rebuilding Lives and Communities Through Art

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

By Farisa Khalid

In the early 1990s, the Cameroonian reporter and cartoonist Issa Nyaphaga lampooned local and international politics in his paper, Le Messager Popoli, a popular satirical journal. During the presidential elections of the early 90s, the goverment subjected Le Messager Popoli to rigorous state censorship, and in 1994, authorities sent Nyaphaga to prison and tortured him for the bracing candor of his political cartoons. Two years later, Nyaphaga fled Cameroon for France as a political asylee and eventually made his way to the United States. The NGO freeDimensional helped Nyaphaga with a series of artist residences while he adjusted to his new life as an exile.

By working with a community of artists and having the sustenance and support to keep his art alive, Nyaphaga continued to push forward with his creative and moral mission in spite of the trauma he experienced. Thanks to freeDimensional’s help, Nyaphaga is heading back to his village in Cameroon to set up his own project, Radio Taboo. His community radio station will air programs that educate the public about health issues related to HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, environmental concerns and women’s rights. Issa Nyaphaga’s success story is one of many that highlight the importance of developing programs that sustain arts within refugee and exile communities.

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, which was sanctioned by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 as a day to highlight the plight of displaced people. In time for World Refugee Day, on June 11 the Arts & Democracy Project hosted a discussion panel called “Forced to Flee: Exiled Voices and Visions for Justice.” The panel brought together a diverse group of artists, activists, and policymakers who have spent years creating and implementing programs that enable exiled artists to rebuild their lives and create communities through art. The discussion, moderated through a conference call, drew upon the various professional and personal experiences of the group as how art has helped survivors of displacement, torture, rape, and trafficking heal through creativity.

Among the presenters for the discussion were Erika Berg, the founder of Refugee Youth Empowered and curator of “Forced to Flee”; Ova Saopeng, a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based theater group TeAda Productions; Sidd Joag, director of freeDimensional; Art 2 Actions Andrea Assaf; and Chaw ei Thein, a Burmese artist and activist who was once a refugee herself. The conversation was moderated by World Policy Institute Senior Fellow Todd Lester and Kathe deNobriga of the Arts & Democracy Project.

Whether the exile is already a professional artist or a child with a budding passion for drawing, art provides one with a powerful outlet of expression.  It is a source of empowerment that enables individuals to rise above being merely a victim of their circumstances. “It gives people sense of possibility and hope again as they overcome obstacles,” said Erika Berg. “Through art, they can rebuild their lives and re-ignite their dreams.”

Ova Saopeng and his wife, the actor and activist Leilani Chan, are the writers and producers of the play Refugee Nation, a story about Laotian refugees and their descendants adjusting to life in America while reconciling their past and the violence of the Vietnam War. Saopeng spoke about the power of art to transcend cultural barriers and strengthen diasporic communities. “The Laotian refugee community in America is very scattered,” Saopeng said. “I believe that the play has given Laotian-Americans a sense of identity. I learned a lot about my own history through it.”

A Colombian audience member and torture survivor told Saopeng that she recognized herself in a scene where a character in Refugee Nation is too afraid to turn on the light in a room, so she sits in darkness trying to forget the bombings. Performance, Saopeng said, has a healing power that can transcend cultural boundaries.

Chaw ei Thein, a visual and performance artist from Myanmar, recounted from her own experience the importance of organizations like freeDimensional that help artist exiles connect with a new artistic communities as well as preserving the migrants’ stories for future generations. When Thein sought asylum in the U.S., freeDimensional helped her adjust to life in America and provided her with a safe haven where could practice her art.:

“When I first came to New York I faced a lot of challenges, not only for daily living, but also for my artistic career. At the time I felt very scared, worried, and confused about starting my career again here in the U.S., especially in New York City where living is expensive and the art field is so competitive. Furthermore, I was trying to engage with new and different people, culture, language, and customs for my survival. [But with freeDimensional’s help,] I found I was not alone in this situation. All of the artists [I met] were immigrant artists. I learned a lot about them and how they were trying to survive like I was. … I felt like that I got back some of the energy that I had when I lived in Burma.”

This past April 25, both Chaw ei Thein and Issa Nyaphaga were both in a group show at the Brian Morris Gallery in New York, called “Fragile States,” which ran till May 17. The show dealt with the struggle of artists to pursue their work in the face of government censorship and persecution.

The “Forced to Flee” discussion brought together many stories to emphasize the unique role of art in the lives of refugees and exiles.When an individual needs a safe haven and place to heal and grow, the practice of art can empower individuals to grow from experience and enact social change for others. As World Refugee Day approaches, the work of organizations like freeDimensional and Arts & Democracy Project shed light on the essential role of creativity and art in improving the lives of displaced and exiled peoples.

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Farisa Khalid is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

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