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Refugees Welcome: a vehicle for change

Britain has been keeping a diary. And one artist has been reading its entries.

Friday 24 June 2016, the day of the Brexit outcome: “At the British Museum, the whole notebook was full of anger because of the vote.”

Saturday 17 September 2016, the day of a major solidarity march in London: “On the refugee march in London the notebook was filled with hope. There is still hope.”

The entries of Britain’s unofficial ghostwriters are currently being penned in a rather extraordinary truck. Created by conceptual artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, ‘Refugees Welcome’ is an art installation with activism in the driving seat. In the back of what looks - on first sight - to be little more than an uninspiring haulage vehicle is a quintessential British living room. Alketa describes it as “a window into the welcome Britain I remember - a safe space where people from all backgrounds can come in, have a sit down and share a story.”

Refugees Welcome by Alketa Xhafa Mripa

“People are telling me their stories of being refugees: of how they came and what Britain means to them.” says Alketa, who came to London herself “as a student, but became a migrant when the war in my country made it impossible for me to return home.”

Alketa is Kosovan-born and worked with the British Red Cross in the late 1990s during the Kosovo war. “I was moved by the way British people welcomed my fellow Kosovars. Ordinary people in Liverpool, Manchester - and other cities where we worked - donated clothes and helped them feel at home. They understood that they just wanted safety and a normal life.”

“Twenty years later, the mood feels different” says Alketa. “The political landscape has changed, but so has the way we think and feel about refugees. Although the UK only hosts a tiny fraction of the millions of displaced people in the world, we hear that there is ‘no room left’. We have forgotten that welcoming those in need is a basic act of humanity.”

Her ‘Refugees Welcome’ piece aims to be a vehicle for change in every sense of the phrase. It is intended to recreate the spirit of solidarity that Alketa first experienced on arriving in the UK while also reflecting humanity’s darker, shameful responses to refugees. The idea came to Alketa when she was travelling through Calais and witnessed people waiting at the roadside “in the hope of jumping into a vehicle that would take them across the Channel.”

“The truck symbolises hope for a better future, but for those who suffocate or freeze to death on the way, it is also a tomb.”

Alketa’s art can be typified by striking contrasts like this one. In June 2015, on the pitch of the main football stadium in Kosovo’s capital Pristina, she hung an evocative tapestry of 5,000 dresses to honour survivors of rape in Kosovo’s war. “People have known about the use of rape as a weapon of war in Kosovo for a long time, but when I hung 5,000 dresses in a football stadium there last year, they couldn’t look away. They were faced with the reality!”

“They were waiting for nearly 16 years for their voices to be heard,” Alketa says of the civilians who were terrorised with sexual violence in their homes, while internally displaced - “wandering on foot and riding on tractors” according to a report by Human Rights Watch - and in temporary detention centres.

Stigma still surrounds speaking out in the country. Kosovo’s parliament moved to recognise survivors of sexual violence as victims of war in 2014, which would make them eligible for financial compensation. Yet, not a single payment has been made. The legislation is “still waiting to be implemented”, says Alketa. “So again I ask: until when do they have to wait?”

Documenting the stories of the voiceless is what Alketa does best. She creates art “to ‘say’ what words cannot”.

But first, she listens. That’s what she’s doing in Britain, creating an ever-growing history of the lives of refugees and the conversations that surround them.

“After the whole diary gets filled up, it will evolve into something else. I will turn its content into another new exhibition.”

The ‘Refugees Welcome’ installation was commissioned by Counterpoint Arts, an organisation that supports, produces and promotes art by - and about - migrants and refugees. You can find out more about their current collaborations and upcoming events at http://counterpointsarts.org.uk.

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