Remembering the Roma Holocaust and Refugees in Literature, Arts and Media

 

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

 
Writing on the Wall were honoured to be asked by Lida Amiri, Continuing Education Lecturer and PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the Department of Histories, Languages and Cultures in The University of Liverpool to host an event she organised as part of our WoWFEST 2018 festival themed ‘Crossing Borders’ - Interdisciplinary Workshop and School Reunion “Refugees in Literature, Film, Art, and Media: Perspectives on the Past and Present”. Today she is attending the conference "Archives of Resistance: Cosmopolitanism, Memory and World Literature" in Leeds, where she shared her research on alternative narratives about Afghanistan by translingual authors and details of the Liverpool workshop. Additionally, the interdisciplinary workshop report has been uploaded as a guest blog on the AHRC Translating Cultures website. We are also posting her introduction to the Liverpool workshop and her blog to continue celebrating the theme, and to throw a light on the continuing disgraceful response and treatment of refugees across the world.

As part of WoWFEST 18 – Crossing Borders we also hosted a three week exhibition and series of talks Remembering the Roma Holocaust: ‘…don’t forget the photos, it’s very important…’ The Nazi Persecution of Central German Sinti and Roma, created by Eve Rosenhaft, Professor of German Historical Studies at Liverpool University and Jana Müller (Alternative Youth Centre Dessau), and a concert by German band Radio Django Berlin.

2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the mass deportation of Germany’s Sinti and Roma (‘Gypsies’) to Auschwitz concentration camp. By the end of World War Two in 1945 hundreds of thousands of Sinti and Roma had been murdered by the Nazis and their allies all over Europe.

The exhibition and talks and workshops led by Eve highlighted how bureaucratic practices, including the counting and registration of the Sinti and Roma, played a key part in their forced journey towards persecution, internment and mass murder. We are also posting photographs from the exhibition to highlight the disgraceful proposals of Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, who is proposing an ethnic census of the Roma. His intentions are clear from the following comment: “We will try to understand how we can intervene, doing what years ago was called the census, we can now call it the registry…to understand what we are dealing with,” Salvini told a regional broadcaster. “The Italian Roma, unfortunately, you have to keep in Italy.”

Writing on the Wall believes in equality and justice and are proud to continue to support those who face oppression and discrimination in any area of society. The attack on the Roma communities, disgraceful in itself, was the precursor to persecution in the 1930s of the Jewish communities and many more. The first Jews to be deported from Hitler’s Germany were also immigrants and refugees who could not claim German nationality. We want to play a role in ensuring this history doesn’t repeat itself.

 


Lida Amiri and Atiq Rahimi 
Introduction to workshop by Lida Amiri:
I was a refugee before I was born. As a new-born infant, I was seeking asylum, while spending my first years in limbo. In other words, my parents moved in and out a total of 7 refugee housing projects before I turned 1 year old. 
 
A refugee, whether from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria,  is nothing other than a human being in search of a place, where a safe home exists, clean water is provided, and education is accessible. This is the core essence of an asylum seeker arriving in Europe.    
 
The term ‘refugee’ is not to be connected with the fundamentalist trope, which has been strongly disseminated by US-American media outlets in a post-9/11 world. Beware being s
wayed by ideological narratives, as blood is being shed in the name of extremism, in not only Christian Europe, but also Muslim Asia. We are all part of this, as our lives have been changed either as refugees or as a society welcoming them.
Once refugees have reached the safe haven, they can seize opportunities, but nonetheless have to face challenges. With no financial support, no network, no extended family, no understanding of the foreign culture, a refugee must find a place in the new society.

Attributing a personal account to these journeys is one way to humanise the term ‘asylum seeking’ and making these challenges more tangible. Apart from someone’s biography, there are  different forms of art that can disseminate a more nuanced perspective on refugees asking questions like:
 
 To what extent can arts and humanities defy current, at times politically legitimized, displays of discrimination in the world?
Answers to questions like these can be found in an interdisciplinary context, by bringing together people from a range of different sectors. In this workshop, academics from various disciplines, artists from different backgrounds, meet not only to exchange ideas, but also to challenge stereotypes. 


Interdisciplinary Workshop and School Reunion “Refugees in Literature, Film, Art, and Media: Perspectives on the Past and Present”
The international workshop, held on 17 May 2018, was not only a major academic and artistic event, but also a key date for the global Afghan Diaspora: two secondary school friends, hitherto deprived of any reunion, met again for the first time. At this interdisciplinary event, part of Liverpool’s annual Writing on the Wall writing and literary festival, all delegates shared the moment, when Atiq Rahimi and Wali Ahmadi, former students at Lycée Esteqlal, Kabul, saw each other for the first time after approximately 40 years.
 
Former asylum seeker and current University Liverpool PhD candidate, Lida Amiri, delivered the workshop’s welcome speech, a captivating piece entitled ‘I was a refugee before I was born’. It was appropriate that the event took place at the Kuumba Imani Millenium Centre, where Chief Executive Officer Michelle Charters introduced delegates to the ambitions of this community centre located in one of Liverpool’s most diverse districts. There was further local engagement with asylum seekers through SOLA ARTS, the leading refugee arts organisation on Merseyside, introduced by Managing Director Adele Spiers and Tony Luna, who spoke of their work with individuals who have survived traumatic experiences and also presented their annual festival, FESTIVAL 31. The local STAR group, part of the nation-wide ‘Student Action for Refugees’, was introduced by Deputy Director Emily Crowley, who shared the charity’s ambitions to raise awareness and change the asylum system. The Writing on the Wall co-director Mike Morris underlined the necessary focus on migration as the rationale behind this year’s festival theme ‘Crossing Borders’.


From left to right:Frédéric Lecloux, Associate Prof. Wali Ahmadi, Nasruddin Saljuqi, Atiq Rahimi.  Atiq Rahimi, Lida Amiri, Wali Ahmadi.  Mike Morris with audience. 

The diversity of disciplines included in the event allowed a dialogue between different contributors, from artists to academic scholars, on the representation of refugees across a variety of media. Internationally acclaimed Franco-Belgian photographer Frédéric Lecloux shared his recent work, in which he revealed the atrocious living conditions of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar, raising concerns about crimes against humanity amongst this globalized workforce.
 
The first academic panel chaired by Prof. Charles Forsdick (Liverpool University), included papers by Dr. Dominic Davies (City University, London), Dr. Emma Bond (University of St. Andrews), and PhD candidate Catrin Evans (University of Glasgow), who introduced cultural production beyond literature (comics, performance and digital media), vividly addressing the discrimination and perilous journeys of asylum seekers. In the second academic panel, which was chaired by A/Prof. Wali Ahmadi (University of California, Berkeley), PhD candidate Caterina Scarabicchi (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Dr. Michael Perfect (Liverpool John Moores University) presented their readings of refugee representation in literature. While both panels explored alternative refugees’ experience, embracing a heterogeneity of ethnic groups and religious beliefs, Daniel Trilling responded to academic studies with his experience as an acclaimed investigative journalist. Not only did Trilling detail the in-depth research underpinning his publication Lights in the Distance. Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe, a work that seeks to counter dehumanizing discourses relating to refugees, he also explained the difficulties of reporting against persistently sensationalist storylines in much of the media.
 
Writer and chairperson of ‘Afghan Community & Cultural Association of Ireland’ Nasruddin Saljuqi offered revealing insights into Afghanistan’s art and literature, which painted the war-torn society in a different light. This overview of the country’s historical and cultural context served as the ideal introduction to the work of Prix Goncourt-winning author and cinéaste Atiq Rahimi. Rahimi delivered the event’s outstanding and moving keynote ‘Ecrire l’exil’ in its original French version, whilst audience members could read along a projected English translation, ‘Writing Exile’, provided by the event organiser, Lida Amiri. In his speech, the award-winning author addressed figuratively, and at times humorously, his journey from Afghanistan to France and its implications for him as an artist.   
 
In the post-keynote discussion, the audience was able to engage with the author, whose responses were interpreted from French and Dari/Farsi into English by Lida Amiri, who also offered additional cultural information and amusing instances of codeswitching. Part of the final panel was a discussion with Rahimi’s school friend, Wali Ahmadi, who has studied Rahimi’s literary work and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity the panel afforded him to direct his questions on language and creativity at the author personally. This final panel connected a refugee’s journey, characterized by on-going uncertainty of belonging and other profound challenges of living in the diaspora, with the persistent significance of artistic interpretation. Atiq Rahimi responded to audience questions about how being multilingual influences his writing and personal life while also addressing intriguing concerns such as: in which language does a multilingual person dream?
 
Note:
This interdisciplinary workshop was supported by the ‘Student Action for Refugees’ society as part of the 2018 Writing on the Wall festival ‘Crossing Borders’. It was sponsored by the University of Liverpool, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery and the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ theme.