Dutch students help refugee artists find an online voice

Photo: Mahmod Kharrat,A project by Utrecht art school students has become a platform for artists who have come to the Netherlands as refugees to tell their stories.

By Tracy Brown Hamilton

Mahmod Kharrat, 22, is a professional photographer who specialised in portrait photography in his native Damascus. He has lived in the Netherlands for four months, and while he has found himself labelled as a ‘refugee,’ he identifies himself first and foremost with his art form.

‘I am a photographer; I always have been,’ he says. ‘It’s my job, and it makes me feel free.’

His haunting black-and-white portraits – mostly taken during his time in Syria – appear on a newly launched website that features the artwork and writing of refugees.

Utrecht

The Publisher, as the website is called, is the creation of six students at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht.

The students – Sacha Schemkes, Sophie Roumans, Sophie Dogterom, Welmoed Terpstra, Mirthe Vos and Jöran Zeeuw – made the decision to create a platform for refugee artists when tasked with completing an interdisciplinary project for a  college assignment.

‘We all felt we wanted to do something with refugees,’ Sacha Schemkes said at a recent site launch presentation at Pakhuis Zwijger in Amsterdam. ‘But we didn’t know precisely what.’

The group was concerned about the portrayal of the refugees in the mainstream press. ‘You heard a lot in the media about the refugees, but they don’t have much opportunity to speak for themselves,’ Sophia Roumans says, ‘And that was our goal, to give a voice to the refugees.’

Social media

The team began trying to contact refugees in Nijmegen, which has the largest reception centre in the country. Some 3,000 new arrivals reside there.

‘We approached people there, and contacted a Facebook group for refugees to find people who might want to meet with us, to see what could develop,’ Roumans explains. ‘And we met some very inspiring people.’

The students wanted the project to be a true collaboration. ‘We did not want to present it as something that we would do about them; we wanted to have their input into what they wanted to express,’ Schemkes says. ‘Not something the “white Westerner” says is good for them.’

Self-expression

What they heard was that the refugees wanted a platform on which they could express themselves directly. Being art students, the developers of the site believe you can sometimes say more with a photo or a film then with an article. ‘The people we’ve met are very creative,’ they say. ‘We are very proud of the work we have received.’

The site is an eclectic mix of styles and art forms, from photography to poetry, all of which sheds light on the people behind the ‘refugee’ tag.

Among the contributors is 16-year-old poet Tamara Mehhook, who writes about the pain a boy feels for his country, and the sadness at having to leave it. ‘Oh Syria… my home […] I am proud to be your son.’

You’ll also find recipes accompanied by the gorgeous food photography of Rada Assi, a mother of two teenagers who came to the Netherlands six months ago.

Ten attempts

Shady Zen Aldeen is a 27-year-old architect who wrote about his journey to the Netherlands, including his harrowing ten attempts to cross by boat from Turkey to Greece. ‘They left us stranded in the sea,’ he writes, surrounded by three-meter waves with no motor.

Aldeen says he shared his story to help break the barriers between himself and the Dutch people. ‘It’s important for us to be able to project a positive image,’ he says. ‘So that people can know more about who we are.‘

Although he says most people have been very friendly, he has encountered resistance. ‘When I first arrived four months ago, we went to the centre of Nijmegen to hand out flowers to people, to say thank you,’ he says. ‘Some people refused to talk to us. Some people are afraid. They have a lot of ideas about us, and there is some prejudice.’

Dreams

He hopes initiatives like The Publisher will help improve this. ‘I think we have to tell them more about ourselves, about who we are, our dreams,’ he says. ‘About our plans.’

The students behind the site also intend to continue their work on the initiative, beyond the college assignment. They believe artistic expression is vital for the refugees, both for their well-being and also for their livelihood moving forward.

‘The image people have of refugees is that of people in need. The focus is on how much money they cost, that everyone will need to be given a house,’ Schemkes says.

‘But actually we’ve met many creative people who say “I don’t need to be given a house, I just want to be able to do my work, earn my own money, and then I can look after myself”. But they can’t do that because they don’t have a network, they don’t have the right papers.’

Sponsorship

For now, the site can give refugee artists exposure, and hopefully access to the equipment they need – cameras, paints, computers. ‘Right now, we do everything ourselves,’ Schemkes says. ‘But now we want to find more sponsorship. With more money, of course you can do a lot more. So that’s what we’re seeking now.’

Most of the current work on the site has come from the network they have formed in Nijmegen, but now that the site has launched, they hope it will extend to other areas of the Netherlands.

And there are ideas for taking the work offline, as well. ‘We would like to have an exhibition of the work, perhaps even a pop-up restaurant,’ Roumans says. ‘We have lots of ideas.’