Maokwo founder and CEO Laura Nyahuye looks back on her Refugee Week event, Imagine My Reality

Since lockdown began, it’s been a challenging few months for everyone, with the crisis affecting us all in different ways. But one of the more interesting outcomes of this extraordinary situation is that fighting our own battles has helped to make us more aware of the everyday struggles faced by other people.

The stress, fear and uncertainty that have spread during the pandemic are a much more familiar part of life for many people, including refugees and asylum seekers. But as well as exacerbating existing inequalities, lockdown has also provided us with a critical opportunity to listen and learn about the experiences of others – an opportunity that our Springboard company Maokwo recently put to use in their Refugee Week 2020 project, Imagine My Reality.

Held as part of Coventry Welcomes’ first online festival, this Zoom-based event combined visual, film and performance art with conversation, inviting audiences to consider the daily lives of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in our communities, particularly in our current context.

Commissioned by Slanguages – a research project exploring linguistic diversity at Birmingham City University and the University of Oxford – the event aimed to challenge negative perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers by exploring the human dimension of their experiences here in Coventry.

Working with Coventry Asylum and Refugee Action Group (CARAG), Maokwo gathered stories from refugees and asylum seekers living in the city in audio and video form, which served as the inspiration for new work by local artists.

“All of the artists are from migrant backgrounds themselves, and members of the Maokwo Fusion Artist Network” explains Maokwo founder and CEO Laura Nyahuye. “After we were approached by Professor Rajinder Dudrah, who leads the Slanguages project, we had quite a quick turnaround to bring the event together.

“As fears about covid and lockdown surfaced, the questions that were on the lips of our friends at CARAG were things like where to sleep and how to stock up on food when your income is only £5.39 per day. These became our focus for the event.

“Tying this in with Imagine, the theme of Refugee Week 2020, we came up with the title Imagine My Reality, which provided a great springboard for us to investigate and tell stories of the real life experiences of refugees and asylum seekers.”

Resounding Gongs and the Peripheral Vision of Sheep from Ryan Hart on Vimeo.

Featured artists included multimedia artist and filmmaker Ryan Christopher whose experimental film Resounding Gongs and the Peripheral Vision of Sheep interrogates our relationship with empathy, language and listening, focusing on the idea of seeing and hearing versus being seen and being heard.

Ryan, who is of mixed Trinidadian and Sri Lankan heritage, said, “Prior to this commission, I was so unaware of the struggles that refugees and asylum seekers were experiencing during this pandemic, the media that I was seeing was focusing on the struggles of the majority, the supermarket drama and updates on the spread of the virus.

“I took an experimental approach to the making of Resounding Gongs because I was finding that conventional approaches seemed only to contribute to a cacophony of superficial solutions and a lack of real action.”

Chrissie Okorie, whose family roots are in Zimbabwe and Nigeria, performed a spoken word piece centred on the struggles that refugees and migrants face being under lockdown in a foreign country, often without family nearby and no connection to the people around them.

“I got involved in this commission because I am passionate about using my art to fight for the rights of unheard voices. For me it’s a form of activism,” she said.

Visual artist Zoey Sibanda, meanwhile, created a set of mixed media collages drawing on her own background in Zimbabwe as well as stories from refugees in Coventry.

Imagine My Reality has helped me get in touch with who I am as an African… but this project has also brought a different kind of reality to my attention,” she says.

Even for Laura, who is from Zimbabwe and who has her own personal experiences of escaping trauma, working on this project has in some ways been eye-opening.

“Conversations with the team at CARAG, highlighted my change of circumstances as a migrant. My reality during lockdown was not a question of whether I had a roof over my head, which was something that our CARAG friends and leaders were sadly experiencing,” says Laura.

“When we first went into lockdown, people were complaining about things like queuing at the shops and fighting over toilet paper, but for asylum seekers, just being able to go and withdraw money and do your shopping at all is a luxury.”

For her own artwork, Laura focused on the experiences of one particular person – Loraine Masiya Mponela, who volunteers as Chair of CARAG, and is herself an asylum seeker. An asylum seeker is someone who has applied for refugee status, but whose request for protection has not yet been processed by the government. They are not legally allowed to work or earn money while their case is reviewed, and their situation can change suddenly at any time. In some cases, it can take years for their requests to be granted or denied.

Talking to Loraine, Laura was struck by the additional pressures on those who take on roles as community leaders, whose sense of responsibility for others adds a further dimension to their own struggles. As a visual artist, specialising in body adornments, she began to explore and visualise the challenges that Loraine was facing, both during and outside of lockdown.

“Loraine has layers of things that are going on in her life,” says Laura. “She is echoing the voices of many people, but at the same time, she’s also got her own needs. As someone who has found myself in the position of being a leader to people during this time, there were things about her life that I identified with, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine being in a leadership position with no status and no income yourself.

“It’s a harsh reality to be in a space of wanting and also feeling the wanting of others. Every time I spoke to her, I felt a tension between wanting to pull her own of the situation she was in, but also understanding and respecting that her support is needed, since many people are looking to her for help.”

As well as concerns about her own health and her responsibility to her community, Loraine has the additional worry of being a mother, and being separated from her son.

“I kept coming back to her status on WhatsApp, which is, God I love my son,” Laura continues. “I’ve known Loraine a long time, and every time I’ve seen that status over the years, as a mother myself, it’s always spoken to me and given me pause, even though it’s not something we’ve ever really discussed before.

“I’m sure any parent can relate to worrying about your children, especially during the pandemic, but for her, this isn’t a child she can just call or visit any time. Loraine has been separated from her son for nine years.”

After some research and exploring of textures and immersing herself in Loraine’s story. Laura designed and created Mbereko, a word from her native Shona language, which translates as “baby sling”. The sling was designed to act as a physical representation of Loraine’s burden, an echo of her silent screams and those of others who are facing the same situation as her.

Working with editor Ben Sandler and photographer Zoey Sibanda, Laura produced a short film, combining images of Loraine and the mbereko she created with an audio recording of a poem by Loraine.

For Laura herself, her sense of responsibility to others is something which has weighed heavily on her during lockdown. Imagine My Reality is just one of many online events she has been running to keep her network connected while they were unable to meet in person, with her fortnightly Girl on Fire sessions continuing to run every other Wednesday.

Organising these has helped her gain the confidence to manage a more creatively ambitious lockdown project, but there’s been a lot of learning to do and conflicting emotions to resolve along the way.

“In some ways, it felt like a lot of opportunities were coming out of being in lockdown, but at the same time, mentally it was very hard to adjust and work out how to make things happen. And then even when funding offers started coming through, a lot of those opportunities had criteria that we didn’t meet or were asking questions we couldn’t answer as an emerging company.

“For the first three weeks there were times that I just couldn’t get out of bed – I was just sitting there and I didn’t know what to do. I set all sorts of tasks for myself that I didn’t complete, and I really don’t like video calls, so I didn’t want to speak to people on Zoom.

“We are in a process of growing as an organisation, with a lot of people, young and mature, now looking to us for support and guidance. Our position as a female, migrant-led organisation comes with additional challenges. How do you manage this when an epidemic hits?

“In the end, I had to surrender to the unknown and forgive myself for feeling overwhelmed. Eventually, talking it through with others really helped me with that. Having a support network and just talking honestly about it enabled me to emerge out of it, little by little. Having shared spaces to acknowledge each others challenges and triumphs is golden!”

And ultimately, when things came together for Imagine My Reality, it all felt worth the struggle.

“We got a really good public response. 81 people registered for the event. We had a few drop out because it ended up coinciding with the Black Lives Matter protest in Coventry, but we still had about 50 turn up including MP Zarah Sultana, who is a strong advocate for the arts and for minority groups.

“The response was really positive. We had some incredibly thoughtful feedback which was really helpful for the artists, because it showed how much people were connecting with their work. For example, when Zoey started talking about her project, initially she didn’t want to delve too deep into it, but the way that the audience engaged really encouraged her to open up.

“There was a lot of crying – I almost felt like we should have put a disclaimer in the event description warning people to expect tears,” she laughs. “But it was a very supportive audience, and a lot of them have actually reached out to CARAG and made donations as a result, which is fantastic! I would like to thank the whole Maokwo team – Donna, Sammy, Chrissie and Karen – who all worked really hard to make the event a success.”

For more information about Imagine My Reality and the artists involved, please visit Maokwo’s website. You can also find out more about CARAG and how to support their work here.