‘The borderless Republic’: Sheffield celebrates migration

United Kingdom
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A vigil held at the festival for Mohammed Alhajali, a Syrian refugee died in the Grenfell Tower tragedy. © Lydia Noon

It is lunchtime on 21 June, the hottest day of the year so far. Sheffield’s office workers, tourists, families and friends are eating their lunch, reading messages on their phones and smoking cigarettes in the city centre’s Tudor Square.

That is, until two drummers signal the start of an outdoor African Fusion Dance Workshop. Dancing is not compulsory but participation is – the beat is infectious and hearing it is unavoidable as sweaty beginners learn the routine and wiggle their hips.

Refugee Week has arrived in the South Yorkshire city.

Britain’s largest festival that celebrates the contribution of refugees and promotes understanding of why people seek sanctuary is more relevant than ever.

One of the Migration Matters festival’s hashtags is #Sheffieldisopen. Sheffield was the first city in Britain to win City of Sanctuary status in 2007. A decade later and cities, towns, universities and even libraries have followed suit. The festival began on 20 June until 24 June and reflects the city’s proud history and diversity.

Rather than many refugee issue themed events that preach to the converted, this festival aims to be inclusive, reflected in its line-up and its ‘pay as you decide’ approach to ticket sales. Flyers and free ice cream tempt members of the public to participate in a welcoming space, alongside artists, people seeking sanctuary and local community groups. Theatre, film, fashion shows, art exhibitions, workshops and storytelling are all in the mix.

The performance All Over & Everywhere is also in the open theatre space of Tudor Square. Tudor Square. On the first anniversary of the Brexit vote, they explore post-Brexit problems through folk dance and the creation of a ‘borderless Republic’.

‘Everyone has the right to stay or to leave,’ the five say in unison. In 45 minutes they illustrate a refugee’s journey, from losing a loved one, to living in a tent in a European refugee camp and finally going through the UK’s traumatic asylum system where residency and citizenship remain out of reach. Through paint and dance, they urge the audience, those hurriedly walking past and those actively watching the performance, to ‘resist and re-imagine’ our world.

Sheffield's Why Refugee Women group showcase the fashions from their countries of origin.

Lydia Noon

Greek political theatre artist Evi Stamatiou presents seven characters on different sides of the Brexit vote in her satirical piece Caryatid Unplugged. Taking to the stage in Sheffield’s cultural centre DINA, she explores the irony of the Conservative government’s refusal to return Greece’s Elgin marbles that have been ‘imprisoned’ in the British museum since 1817, while wishing to deport the fictional Rita, an economic immigrant, back to Greece. Asking the audience to decide whether the marbles should be returned to Greece or Rita be allowed to stay in the UK, there is silence. ‘Like the democratic process in this country,’ Stamatiou quips.

Stamatiou also questions the timing of last year’s referendum when Britain was facing mounting pressure from the EU to accept a quota of refugees living in limbo in Greek refugee camps.

Also in DINA centre, the co-author of Refugee Tales – a Canterbury Tales for the modern age – Dragan Tdorovic, reads the traumatic story of a Syrian refugee in hiding in Birmingham from his book.

At the same time, outside Sheffield’s City Council offices, a vigil is taking place for the residents of Grenfell Tower. Syrian refugee Mohammed Alhajali died in London’s Grenfell Tower tragedy on 14 June. The 23-year-old escaped war and endured a harrowing journey to reach safety in 2014, only to be killed on the 14th floor of the tower block. Speakers lament the government’s treatment of refugees, migrants and poor people while praising the volunteer and community response.

Back inside the Theatre Delicatessen, the festival hub, three young actors in Indefinite Leave to Remain, explore the challenges that first and second generation immigrants face in Britain.

In the physical performance, the mother of the central character Maria, moved to Britain to give her daughter a better life but is separated from her husband who remains in the fictional country of Matvia. Maria doesn’t want to return to a ‘home’ she has never set foot in, but her mother does.

Temperatures rise as Maria’s co-workers believe that Western intervention in war-torn Matvia would simply be ‘collateral damage’, Maria challenges their ‘othering’ and tells her co-workers that we are all the same and lives should be equal, wherever we are from.

The stories of the people that have made Britain their home and the celebration of the communities that have welcomed them is what makes this festival special.

Recent terror attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire have affirmed the importance of community over division. And the celebrations of Ramadan, the recent Great Get Together weekend in memory of the late MP Jo Cox and Refugee Week are uniting people in the face of Brexit, the right-wing government and the tabloid press’ attempts to scapegoat migrants and pull people apart.

As 2017’s Refugee Week draws to a close, the power of community has never felt stronger.

Find more information on Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival at: http://migrationmattersfestival.co.uk

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