Inside our sky-blue room, people sit around The Community Table. Outside, we spread out our map on the ground.

“The air is bitterly cold in Folkestone today, and there aren’t many people about to begin with – they are inside, staying warm.

Determined, we hold conversations in the doorway of our sky blue room with passers-by, and let the clatter of our typewriters ring out across the barracks.

Eventually a burble of conversation rises around the table. Towers are built ambitiously high, innovation and delicacy evident in the hands of their makers. There is laughter and the sound of wooden blocks falling.

A poem of lost love is read call-and-response style in English and Sorani Kurdish. We look through a book of ancient maps and watch empires, countries and borders shift and jostle each other over centuries. The connections around the table feel particularly moving today, and together we look at Facebook pictures of daughters, nieces and beloved family trucks, silhouetted against blue Kurdish mountains.

As we leave, a group of new arrivals to the camp make their way over the tarmac to their new home for the next few months. The grit-grey sky is parted by a flash of wintry sunshine, quick as a smile.”

Art Refuge is a UK registered charity using art and art therapy to support the mental health and wellbeing of people displaced due to conflict, persecution and poverty, both in the UK and internationally. We have projects in Paris, Calais, Folkestone, London and Bristol, supporting individuals displaced on both sides of an often-dangerous crossing over the English Channel. Around The Community Table, our project and framework for engagement, we offer a variety of materials for exploration, creativity and play, including maps, spices, books, plasticine, building blocks and typewriters.

I have been working with Art Refuge in Folkestone for nearly a year, where we have held The Community Table on-site at a residential facility for men seeking asylum in the UK, and at a drop-in centre for the people living there. The day I spend at The Community Table is always the most exciting of my week – no two have ever been the same. Each time we get together around the table is an opportunity for hands-on learning, sharing and discussion.

The experience is profoundly democratising – information flows many ways, skills are shared, conversations in multiple languages translated on the fly. People build walls, houses and towers, draw, read and write on the typewriters. A whiff of berbere from our box of spices prompts a reminiscence on someone’s mother’s cooking. A cow is delicately modelled from plasticine, carrying with it a story from childhood of playing with calves at home in Sudan.

I have delighted in recording what happens around the table, both in the room as it happens, on a typewriter, and at the end of the day, when my head feels full of stories and snippets from people’s lives – history as it is lived.

“Inside our sky-blue room, people sit around The Community Table, taking the lids off jars of spices, discussing which are best for tea, for rice, for making spiced butter. Outside, we spread out our map on the ground.

Interest builds. Pointing, a man explains how he travelled here – by car, by boat, by truck, by train, walking. Together, we chart the journey with strips of tape, too busy following each other’s fingers over cities and countries to notice a small group forming around us. Over the next hours we chart fifteen or twenty routes, threading together Asmara, Tripoli, Lebanon, Istanbul, Catania, Munich, Paris, Crystal Palace, Croydon.

We are shown phone videos of a Mediterranean crossing, short and matter-of-fact about the danger, the discomfort, the beauty of the water, its oil-spill iridescence. Drawn in by the activity, a worker on site tells us that he and his colleagues were refugees once, that they travelled the same routes: ‘There is no separation between them and us.’”

This work brings us face-to-face with the crisis at the France-UK border. We work not only to support people as they face new challenges upon arrival in the UK, but also to provide resource for the separations, losses, struggles, and experiences of oppression sustained on perilous journeys over thousands of miles, to be acknowledged and witnessed.

On the typewriter, people write their thoughts, letters, ideas, poems, fragments. Some people write their name, or their name and the date, to mark their presence here, at the table, at this moment in time. The mechanical workings of the typewriter and its distinctive sound are fascinating as well as soothing, and its effective ‘instant print’ is a tool for record-making, for gift giving, for witnessing and being witnessed.

Around the table, I have seen first-hand how essential art and art-making is to human flourishing. In highly challenging environments, The Community Table offers opportunities for absorption, joy, creativity and lightness, and it has been amazing to see how eagerly people take these up. We deal in transience and impermanence. It can be very meaningful to record everyday goings-on, conversations and stories using the typewriter, transforming them into poetry. These semi-permanent writings sit alongside the churn of activity around the table – tension and release as towers are built and knocked down, dances and movements rippling from person to person, photographs posed and taken and printed, the unrecordable sensations of smell and taste and moments of nonverbal connection. Through the bustle of these experiences, we get a sense of sharing in something, of being in it together.

The CLA’s support has allowed us to respond to the still-growing demand in Folkestone, Calais, Paris, London and Bristol for opportunities for displaced people to access creativity, build resilience, be heard about their lives, through art and art-making. As conflicts continue to rage globally, not least in Ukraine, and with an accelerating climate crisis already creating ‘climate refugees’, our work continues to be in dialogue with one of the most pressing issues of our time. Meanwhile, in Folkestone, the men I meet are delighted, fascinated, diverted, relieved, challenged, encouraged and inspired by what is on offer at The Community Table.

“We bring with us a roll of wallpaper printed with cumulus clouds and hang it on the wall. It seems as though we had relocated to the sky itself, with the world map on the floor below us. A strip of wallpaper goes on the table and, with clouds as a foundation, people begin building: homes with many rooms, a squat and solid triangular wall punctuated ingeniously with decorative gates, a twisting tower with a garden at the top. The bricks are suspended in the air, the builders absorbed in their work.

I sit at the typewriter surrounded by a cloud of words, 300 of the most common in English, printed on little cards. A man whose love of language is evident in every word he chooses tells me that they are ‘child words’ but their monosyllables carry multiple meanings. We bring them over to the map and I am surprised by the potency of the commentary they produce. They rewrite the story of the map.

In Sudan, we put ‘first’ and ‘begin’. ‘Write’ sits, as a compromise, on the border between Iraq and Iran. On the south coast of England, ‘break’ – the break between Britain and continental Europe, the break of Brexit, the hard and dangerous crossings over the channel, the sea represented by a tiny sliver of blue space on the map.

We float temporarily free from the harshness of the logics of the camp, from the harshness of a world in which conflicts rage, borders are enforced and dominations are further and further entrenched. In our sky-blue room there is freedom to move, talk, experiment, create, both around the table and away from it, with people leaving, returning, drifting together like clouds.”

Josie Carter, April 2022


Please read about The Community Table here:  www.artrefuge.org.uk/community-table

ART REFUGE

UK charity no 1114353

Website: www.artrefuge.org.uk

Twitter: @artrefugeuk

Instagram: @artrefuge_ / @artrefuge_wishyouwerehere / @coronaquilt

Facebook: Art Refuge

Josephine Carter is a poet based in Folkestone, UK. Using poetry to explore selfhood, identity, struggle and survival, Josephine has worked with communities impacted by racism, young people and refugees, facilitating the production of traditional and experimental writing to spur reflection, action and activism. Alongside other writing projects exploring social marginality, physical borders and resistance to oppression, she works with Art Refuge in Folkestone using typewriters, recording, translation and poetry with men seeking asylum in the UK. 


If you enjoyed this blog, have a read of our blogs from other creative charities that we have supported over the years.