Art and Refugees A Road to Healing

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In a recent press release the Communications Directorate of the African Union (AU) announced the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the AU will take place from 15 January to 10 February 2019, under the theme “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa. Yes, almost one month as compared to the typical ten days or so of meetings and traffic and network jams which also bring the annual economic boost to Addis Ababa with hotels, vehicles and other conference related services. But will this important theme on “refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons…”, which affects almost every life on the continent in one way or another, be lost in the sauce of bureaucracy, talk shops and tea breaks? Or can we rely on the AU and advocates in civil society to ensure this year truly forges a clear path to solutions to address this ongoing tragic issue taking the lives of so many African youth?
After years of curating exhibitions and events focused on this very issue for International Organization for Migration (IOM), USA Mission to the AU amongst others, “the House” as the AU is called by insiders, would be remiss to omit the arts sector. Over the decades research, publications and pedagogy have explored and utilized the arts in addressing theses issues. Some publications include The Suitcase Stories: Refugee Children Reclaim Their Identities, by Glynis Clacherty and Diane Welvering; Art Making With Refugees and Survivors: Creative and Transformative by Sally Adnams Jones; Arts Therapists, Refugees, and Migrants: Reaching Across Borders edited by Ditty Dokter and Art Therapy with Refugees: A Cross Cultural Dimension by Elissa Faye Perlman to name a few published between 1991 and 2018. Famous Chinese artist and former refugee, Ai Weiwei, sums it up in his new book, Humanity edited by Larry Walsh, “…every human being deserves the same aspirations we are called upon to use our individual power to aid those whose power has been stripped from them. We must resist complacency and indifference and strive to bring immediate and sustained attention to this crisis on a global scale.” In other words, this should not be a political issue, but a human issue.
Ethiopia has provided refuge for millions from surrounding nations and might I add even to the thousands of Rastafarians and Pan Africans from the Diaspora who grew tired of living in lands of birth facing exclusion, discrimination and life threatening conditions.
Our own Ethiopian based, DC born K-Allen croons, “Ethiopia watch over me, I believe in you so, and I won’t forgot what you’ve done for me…”. So can and will Ethiopia help to lead the charge for “durable solutions” and will they do so leaning on the power of the arts to help heal the hearts and souls of the millions affected on the continent? It’s a big ask, but I, like K Allen, believe in Ethiopia and believe that if artists are given the opportunity to engage on all levels from developing programs, delivering services, training and more that we may get one step closer to achieving what seems to be a daunting if not impossible task. Art in refugee camps and access to literature, music, drama, poetry can make a difference. But this must be institutionalized and not just for photo opps or an occasional after thought. The AU should also include artists and arts professionals in special committees being established to address sustainable solutions including prevention or deterrence of our young people taking many times a tragic journey of no return home.
It is my hope that this year’s AU Theme will provide a chance for all of society including artists to be part of the program for change. Let us not wait to see but do what you can where ever you are… be it a building you own which you can provide for a mural to be painted to raise awareness or supporting public art that speaks volumes to thousands on a daily basis or even art auctions, as I have done in the past, to raise funds for refugees, DO SOMETHING…Please.

Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born
Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora
African Forum.