By Iman Hakimi, Comms and Advocacy Volunteer 

To close Refugee Week 2022, Asylum Welcome partnered with the Oxford Festival of the Arts to host ‘Cultures, Crossings, and Communities’, an All-Day Bazaar at Magdalen College School. Festivities were followed by a panel discussion chaired by BBC political correspondent Rob Watson, with local councillors and refugees as speakers.

Stallholders were members of various refugee-organised groups and refugee charities: Oxfordshire Asian Women’s Voice; Multaka Oxford; BK LUWO United Womens’ Organization; Damascus Rose; Syrian Sisters; Beroia; IWAW (Iraqi Women Art and War); Refugee Resource; Jacari; Refugee Education UK; Oxford Sudanese Supplementary School; Afghan Women’s Group; Freedom from Torture; Brightwell Supporting Refugees; and SolidariTee.

With enthusiasm buzzing from each representative to share and promote their work, and an abundance of delicious homemade Iraqi, Eritrean, Sudanese, and Indian delicacies on sale, the bazaar commemorated community work, cultural exchange, and the solidarity which is fundamental to these engagements.

Appositely, the first group I spoke to was Multaka Oxford, which by name represents a “meeting-point” – “multaka” in Arabic – where people come together to share their knowledge of art, culture, and science at the History of Science and Pitt Rivers museums.

Volunteers from varied backgrounds, including some with experience of forced migration, each bring their individual expertise and viewpoints to work with the collections and hold public tours, workshops, and object-handling sessions.

Multaka project manager, Nicola Bird, encapsulates the group’s work as using the “museums as a place where people, minds, cultures, and histories can meet”, creating a “cultural discourse” which is inseparable from forging communities.

Nicola Bird, project manager of Multaka Oxford, with artefacts from the Pitt Rivers Museum

Several community groups present were founded by women with lived experience of conflict and displacement, who lead associations to help those of a similar background find their feet in Oxford.

Iraqi Women Art and War (IWAW), formed by Iraqi artist Rana Ibrahim, showcased multi-textual art, which is produced by members as a mode of creatively expressing their experiences of warfare and forced migration. Running arts and crafts activities for children, encouraging visitors to dance to Iraqi tunes, giving intricate henna tattoos, and plating up irresistible food such as dolmeh (stuffed vine leaves), tabola salad, kobba, kleicha, and baklawa, the IWAW team promoted their creative expression joyfully and interactively.

Syrian Sisters and Oxfordshire Asian Women’s Voice informed visitors of the support networks they represent for Syrian and Asian women in Oxford. Each group offers camaraderie for their respective members, for whom retaining parts of their culture is as tantamount to integrating into British society as fostering vocational skills and language development.

Filda Abelkec-Lukonyomoi, founder of BK LUWO: United Women’s Organization, represented her female-led initiative with an array of hand-sewn garments: head wraps, kikoys, and dresses, all designed in traditional Ugandan textiles, and crafted by herself and other group members of Ugandan refugee women living in Oxford.

Filda Abelkec-Lukonyomoi with crochet needle in hand

After her home was attacked by the present government in 1986, and years of consequent suffering during violent conflict in Uganda, Filda came to Cowley Road in 1989, creating BK LUWO as a space for Ugandan refugee women to create “home [away] from home”.

“As Ugandan refugees, we needed a place where we could just meet other people while talking. We’d be doing work by hand, laughing together, learn[ing] new skills – machine embroidery, machine knitting, computer work…”

Filda implores younger generations to participate in and continue BK LUWO’s work, and older generations with textured cultural experiences to preserve Ugandan customs in their new homes:

“We ask young people to come and help us to learn new things and tell us your story! And we ask older people to pass on the skills that they’ve learned along the way to other people, so that the skills don’t go down with them.”

Elaborating on these skills to include “storytelling and songs” as integral to Ugandan “oral traditions”, Filda displays her own cultural memory preserves: an authored book on the Lango and Acholi alphabet and vocabularies, and her published retelling of a famous Ugandan folklore tale, ‘Kandenge and the Arrogant King’. The latter was dramatised and performed to pupils at Kirtlington C of E Primary School, Filda proudly shares. Her call for women to band together and share their stories of resilience “so that you can help somebody else” is timeless.

Filda’s authored Lango and Acholi alphabet and vocabulary (left) and an actor performing her retelling of ‘Kandenge and the Arrogant King’ at Kirtlington C of E Primary School

Through her tireless work in bringing Ugandan refugee communities together and conserving oral traditions, Filda exemplifies the journey of a woman who, after surviving torture and displacement, uses her experience to build healing and welcoming spaces for those in her community.

Filda was helped by Freedom from Torture, another organisation represented at the bazaar. Since its inception in 1985, Freedom from Torture has been providing care, support, and therapy for victims of torture who have come to the UK through any means. Currently, they are campaigning against the UK government’s egregious offshoring schemes.

Survivors aided by Freedom from Torture have gone on to start creative writing groups such as Write to Life, for whom creative expression through literature is a beacon in their recovery. Displayed at the stall are their publications, namely ‘An A-Z of Poverty’. Each letter of the alphabet includes a word submitted by a survivor: ‘A’ FOR Akamwanyi, by a survivor anonymised as ‘Uganda’. Akamwanyi is a Lugandan word, the entry explains, which refers to a single coffee seed, and which ‘Uganda’ metaphorizes as limited opportunities available to asylum seekers in their dependence on the state – that is, “until the permission to plant your own garden is given”. Then, one can grow “amwanyi” – multiple coffee beans – which are critical to creating a full cup of coffee, or a full life. It is deeply moving and galvanizing to see an organisation which fosters rehabilitation through creativity.

The writing projects from Write to Life displayed at the Freedom from Torture stall

Members of Oxford’s Eritrean community held a stall which taught of the importance of the Eritrean coffee ceremony – a custom which is indispensable to the act of sharing with neighbours and family.

Eritrean coffee served with traditional bread and popcorn

Other delights on sale were fatayers, mujaddara, falafel, and baklava sold by Anas and Ghazal from Damascus Rose Kitchen, an enterprise which serves Middle Eastern food daily at Oxford’s Old Fire Station café. Sudanese sweet treats and hibiscus juice were dished out by the Oxford Sudanese Supplementary School, who provide educational support and Arabic lessons for young Sudanese and Arab people in Oxford.

The bazaar was also teeming with artisanal goods made by designers with a migratory background: bespoke cushions, curtains, tote bags, and Syrian soaps sold by Khalid and his daughter Shireen from Beroia, and earrings crafted by members of the Syrian Sisters.

During the afternoon, esteemed Syrian musician Maya Youssef shared her masterful talent through an interactive workshop on the qanun and the basics of the Egyptian Malfouf rhythm.

Exhibiting artistry, enterprise, and life-changing community work, the All-Day Bazaar was a festivity fit for celebrating the ways in which refugees expand creativity in their new homes.

At 4pm, the marquee was transformed from bazaar to panel discussion. BBC political correspondent Rob Watson chaired a talk between Mark Goldring, director of Asylum Welcome, Cllr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini, Baronness Jan Royall, and two refugees who have recently resettled in Oxford: Khesraw, from Afghanistan, and Tamara, from Ukraine.

Powerful and poignant points around the government’s flagrant neglect and ostracization of refugees and asylum seekers were made. Djafari-Marbini, an anaesthetist and city councillor for Northfield Brook, rebuked the Rwanda plan as a scheme which “demarcates bad migrants”, stressing that viewing refugees as less than citizens is precisely “to miss the humanity in others”.

Royall, as Somerville College’s principal, which is classed as a “college of sanctuary”, concurred with Djafari-Marbini, voicing her hope for more colleges and universities to enshrine the right of sanctuary in their institutional creed.

Speaking on the resettling and rehousing of Afghan refugees in the UK who are still confined to hotels, Goldring explained that there were “15,000 Afghans in hotels in September 2021 and there are 12,000 now […] Afghans are set up to compete with other people who need housing”, calling for “new ways to commission social housing” to be established.

Watson opened the discussion to Khesraw and Tamara, whose experiences reified the topics of discussion. While Tamara spoke of a smoother, more welcoming entrance into life in the UK, Khesraw detailed a more difficult resettlement, which in itself probes an uncomfortable reckoning with the differentiated treatment of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees by Western European polities and populations. Aided in his resettlement by Asylum Welcome, Khesraw touchingly remarked that after departing from his family and his home, he has “found a new family in Asylum Welcome”.

(c) Dai Richards

In the wake of Refugee Week 2022, Priti Patel’s brigade unabashedly enforce more heinous policies which differentiate, denigrate, and criminalise refugees and asylum seekers.

We have felt the sting of their deplorable agenda most recently in Oxford after the reopening of Campsfield House, an Immigration Removal Centre in Kidlington, which will resume its detainment and deportation of men identified as “foreign criminals and immigration offenders”. The conflation of these categories is yet another exposé of the government’s lazy and irresponsible treatment of refugees as threats to the societies they seek help from.

The success of events like the All-Day Bazaar is a heartening reminder that there are many among us who will continue to celebrate cultural diversity and to support those seeking sanctuary; there are refugees and asylum seekers who comprise and enrich their places of resettlement; and we will persist in our resistance to the hostile environment’s divisive and cruel operation.