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'It's bringing you to life' - photography and poetry workshop part 2

In May we collaborated with our partner, Manchester Poetry Library, on a project with 14 women from sanctuary-seeking backgrounds from Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Cameroon.

The session started with an icebreaker. The women were told to think of a happy memory connected to the item they had brought to the first session and condense it into 20, 10, and 5 words. They then had to write the final 5 on their emulsion lift paper. The women concentrated on the task and then shared their chosen words.


Self-love and resilience

The woman who brought the T-shirt said: "I like the way the lady gave it to me as a gift, it was adorable for me and I like to wear it all the time"


When thinking about the Pondu spoon the woman's translated words were: "It's bringing you to life"


The group were reminded of the importance of self-love as a form of resilience. Taking care of our things is a way to take care of ourselves.


"When I am in the shop, and I open my bag to get my money and everyone says – what a beautiful purse. If I don't take care of myself, no one will take care of myself, no one will love me more than I love myself, I have to love myself"


In reference to the hat the woman said: "Where ever I am I can be seen."


This comment made the whole group laugh, and showed this participant's character, demonstrating the successful use of the icebreaker task.


Lydia asked, do you also see yourself in these words?


"Sometimes life makes you forget these things, especially in the asylum seeker journey. Today we are empowered by Afrocats, we come from far. Afrocats take us somewhere."


Long-term encounters with the Home Office can be difficult, especially for those who have experienced it for 19 years, like one participant. The constant moving from place to place, unstable housing, social interactions, and food can lead to depression and make it hard to plan anything.


According to one participant, the system is the worst in the world, and it's challenging to have direction in life. Despite this, the Afrocats community provides a space for positive mental health progression through expressive creative workshops like this one, which can help provide direction and support.


Advocacy for Afrocats and Manchester

The conversation then turned to speak about Afrocats:

"This is a good system, I am not moving again, because of the group support we are getting."


"Where would I be if I was in Leeds, Liverpool, or London? Me my place is Manchester" "I have lived in all these cities, there is nothing like Manchester"


"They have a lot of organisations that support asylum seekers. Magdalen is there to support you – with your mental and physical health."


The participants often meet and stay together after the workshops are over, providing a necessary safe haven community for displaced people within Manchester.


"When you don't have the support you close yourself to the world. In Manchester in 5 or 10 minutes outside I see these women. Where god meets you, that's where you belong"


"Say I live in the village, I like the village"


During a conversation comparing Manchester to the places these women had been and lived in previously, the topic naturally shifted to their asylum-seeker journeys. This discussion was filled with painful emotions, causing the room to feel heavy. All of the women displayed protective and defensive body language during this part of the conversation.


"I would never forget my asylum seeker journey – This is a book, I would like to write it down"


As one participant put it: "Your experience can help guide those who are following behind you. Even if your own journey was painful, you have the ability to lead others."


The women then moved on to the main activity at hand. They had to find a pre-existing poem in one of the books on the table that they personally or culturally connected with to then translate. The women then shared their choices with the group and explained their creative translation choices


During the discussion, a participant expressed her disinterest in poetry, stating "It has never been my cup of tea, I hated it since school".


To provide a helpful solution, Lydia suggested short story writing as an alternative, which was greatly appreciated. The group consists of individuals with different levels of education, making this particular task challenging for everyone. While some participants work silently, others ask for help.


One participant whilst attempting to translate from French to English struggled with the connotations of words to describe ethnicity.

  • Black?

  • People like me?

  • Congolese?

  • People that make me feel at home?

  • Finally settling on "People that remind me of home"

The challenge was finding a term that celebrates positive global majority communities without using loaded terms that may be seen as racist and without offending non-black individuals. The nuance surrounding these terms made it difficult.


The participants then read their poems to each other. The themes varied, covering topics such as political activism and the significance and strength of motherhood. The content of the work remained heavy.


"I just wish to see one person, all of them are dead" and righteous indignation around the phrase "refused to speak French".


From the perspective of the women, they simply continued to speak their language. This important post-colonial criticism reframed the behaviour of the poem's protagonist, shining a light on the secret and negative threads of colonialism that still exist in the way we use the English language today.


Love and community

After having deep discussions about trauma and personal journeys, it's time to focus on returning to love and community. For the final task, the women had to define love in their mother tongue or write their favourite recipe in their mother tongue. This ended the session on a beautiful and sensitive note that left a lasting impression.


The woman shared that although it was challenging to write about negative experiences, it helped to alleviate the burden that everyone was carrying. After reading their poems aloud and discovering that they resonated with others, everyone felt a sense of solidarity and resilience as they left the event.


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