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Artist and refugee: Alketa Xhafa Mripa, an interview

Spotlighting incredible artist for National Refugee Week UK

There are brilliant artists, and there are refugees. There are brilliant artists who are refugees, and refugees who are brilliant artists. In honour of Refugee Week, SideStory is spotlighting the stories of several artists who have relocated to the UK as refugees. Refugee Week, which runs from the 19-25 June, is the UK’s largest festival to promote understanding of people who seek asylum in Britain. Hundreds of events will take place across the country to celebrate and tell their incredible stories.

The first artist in our short series is Alketa Xhafa Mripa. When we think of refugees, we think of the recent crises sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, but people have fled their homes to seek safety long before these times. Alketa’s unique story reminds us of the shifting attitudes towards those who seek refuge abroad, as well as the untold stories still coming to light from those who have suffered the most.

Alketa was living in the UK and studying Art at Central Saint Martins when the war in Kosovo broke out in 1998. As a result, she had no choice but to seek refugee status in the UK. While Alketa didn’t flee her country, she faced the very real issue of being removed from her home. This fostered her fascination with the themes of identity, history and memory, with a unique focus on women’s issues. Her most recent project, Fancy a tea with a refugee?, is a mobile installation that tours the country, inviting people to share their stories and thoughts about migrants, refugees and displacement.

Do you think artists have a responsibility to raise awareness about social issues?

At this moment in time with everything that’s happening socially and politically, definitely. It depends I suppose on the work of art, but from my point of view art is a voice for the voiceless, it should raise questions around social issues and taboos.

I think the stories I’m collecting are the real and unmediated “Britain has spoken” – my stories of British society are the equivalent of this slogan, but without the propaganda.

Has your status as a refugee impacted your work?

My work tends to tackle the issues and social stigmas surrounding refugees, specifically with regards to the empowerment of women. Even though I didn’t come to London as a refugee, I’m sure my work has deep roots in that situation, because of the fact that I became an asylum seeker in 1999. I suppose that being from a country with deep-rooted issues made me animated about human rights – especially after Brexit. I was inspired by true events recently when in route from France to the UK: witnessing refugees on the streets, with my own eyes, made me feel that I had to portray this situation visually. I believe that when something is visually portrayed it has a universal understanding and appeal: visualising the issues can have an impact on people.

What is the next project you are working on?

In June 2016 I started a project called Refugees Welcome with the British Museum, it was launched during the Brexit vote and has been touring the UK. When people enter the truck I share my story with them – I speak to migrants, refugees, British people…People from all walks of life. Through the project, I’m questioning what happened to the welcoming Britain I knew, to the freedom of opportunity. It seems to me that these stories are the missing piece: the true and emotional facts about how people feel. Brexiteers used the slogan “Britain as spoken” to prove Britain’s wish to leave the EU; I think the stories I’m collecting are the real and unmediated “Britain has spoken” – my stories of British society are the equivalent of this slogan but without the propaganda. The next project will be a contemporary art performance, giving life to these stories through dance.

Have you ever worked with dance as your medium?

No, I haven’t, not at all! I’ve worked on a few performances, but I really want to explore these important stories through body language and movement.

After all these years, do you still feel like a refugee or do you now feel like you belong?

I always felt that I belonged here. I always felt like I was welcome here. Since the Brexit vote I’ve started feeling like “the Other”. So it’s strange because I always felt that this was my second home.

Can art play a role in fostering compassion and understanding of the refugee crisis?

Definitely, because it’s visually presented. People interact more easily with art where language fails: art can break through.

It’s the most simple thing but it’s the most true: if you make people feel welcome and safe they will always give more than they take.

What do you wish people knew about your experience?

You have economic migrants, you have political migrants… But for me, it was the war. Death, rape, massacre surrounds you… Then you find a country that lends a hand and makes you feel safe and welcomed. Refugees and migrants who come here are only looking for a safer life.

Is there a particular story of someone welcoming you as a refugee that touched you?

It was a strange decision to seek asylum because I felt like I was losing my identity. It was 1999 and I felt like I was losing my roots in Kosovo. But, the way I was perceived, welcomed and the opportunities I was given made me feel like I was in a second home. I was later able to go back and forth after the war ended.

Do you think something has changed in our attitude towards refugees?

Yes, especially after Brexit. It’s not just a political but an emotional change, we feel like we have no space for anybody. People who have migrated here now feel unwelcome. People are reacting to the circumstances with closure. Politics, propaganda and the far right have a lot to do with this. They are putting refugees and migrants in a bad light, portraying them as people who are taking jobs, taking resources.

I believe that when you welcome people and make them feel safe, that person will bring more to the table than they take. Their talents are slowly released. They always bring more than they take. They bring their own culture, skills and identity.

What is the one thing you really want to communicate?

It’s very simple. Give people a chance! They are fleeing from the worst situations, from war. We need to give refugees an opportunity for a better life. It’s the most simple thing but it’s the most true: if you make people feel welcome and safe they will always give more than they take.

Refugee Week (19-25 June) is the UK’s largest festival celebrating the contribution of refugees. Hundreds of arts, cultural and educational events will be held nationwide in renowned venues, public squares, libraries, schools and places of worship to celebrate #OurSharedFuture. Find arts and cultural events near you by visiting the Refugee Week website.