Photo: Qais Alamdar. Gunnersbury Park, London
Surpassing our differences and directing attention towards collective bonds are the essence of the Refugee Festival week. Amidst undue politicisation of the refugee situation and heightening fractions amongst different local communities, the Refugee Festival Week 2023 was an attempt to abate these divisions and enhance the sense of solidarity and cohesion. Founded in 1998 in the UK, this festival encompasses educational, arts, sports and cultural programs which celebrates multiculturalism and promotes harmony amongst local communities.
At the world’s largest artistic and cultural festival, the aim is to commemorate and showcase the resilience, creativity and unique contributions of refugees and asylum seekers to British society. Following seeking sanctuary in the UK, it is vital to provide a platform for refugees and asylum seekers to celebrate their diverse culture, share their lived experiences and the reason for their displacement which better bridges the gap and promotes understanding and tolerance.
In contemporary times, the significance of the festival has grown exponentially, notably in response to the resurgence of the Taliban, the heightened oppression of women in Iran due to stringent morality laws, and the invasion of Ukraine. Unrestricted artistic expression, a privilege mainly for the diaspora, serves as a form of resistance, symbolising hope for those still within the country.
Refugees from Afghanistan and Iran emerge as primary seekers of refuge in the UK, due to the atrocities and egregious human rights violations, particularly targeting women. As these violations persist, the diaspora feel the imperative need to both cherish their culture and the responsibility to safeguard the heritage they were denied the opportunity to celebrate in their homeland. Hence, the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association is determined to celebrate the Refugee Week Festival/Summer Festival every year, coinciding with the nationwide Refugee Week initiative. Through vibrant theatrical dances, musical performances, artisan crafts, fashion displays, and the indulgence in traditional culinary delights, our festival entertained up to 5,000 guests per day from refugee and local communities. Also, we offered £1 tickets for individuals from a refugee background and affordable ticket options for others, ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to attend without economic constraints hindering their enjoyment of this special week.
2023 Theme: Compassion
2023’s theme was compassion which encourages people to have and share a common understanding of compassion. In fact, the literal meaning of compassion is “to suffer together” as articulated by emotion researchers. It describes the emerging feeling when one is motivated to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. The Afghanistan and Central Asian Association organised a combined arts event which took place on 24th and 25th June 2023 at Gunnersbury Park in Ealing and was celebrated for 2 days – with one day dedicated to Afghanistan/Iranian and Central Asian refugees and another to Ukrainian refugees. We witnessed a coming together of around 10,000 people over 2 days from a wide variety of refugee communities such as Indian, Afghanistani, Central Asian, and Ukrainian for a celebration of refugee identities. ACAA’s grand Summer Festival came alive with the efforts of the dedicated ACAA staff and volunteers, enveloping everyone in the rich tapestry of traditions, flavours, and talents. Many famous musicians, artists, fashion designers, dancers, and poets were featured this year. Through music, poetry, culinary delights, and captivating entertainment, these gatherings not only offered a taste of home but also created bridges between cultures, fostering a sense of belonging and understanding.
Day 1: Afghanistani Day
The Afghanistani Day was hosted by Sahar Parnian, an actress, and Sharareh Sarwari, who has over seven years experience of reading poetry and performing. It took place on the 24th June, included live music, children’s activities, poetry, dance, among others by Afghanistani and Iranian artists including Afghan Star, Fayaz Hamid, and leading Afghan dancer, Ziba Tabrizi, live band performance with Tamim Yousefi on keyboard, Suleiman Omar on tabla along with Ariz Mahmoud and and Roman Shaidaie, playing traditional afghan instruments, Yasin Mansuri, Sanam Ansari, Hamid Erfan, Srood Band which consists of lead singer Arash, Singer/Keyboardist Tamim and Drummer Jamil, Yusuf Mahmoud, Hashmat Ehsanmand, the doctor, opera singer, and musician Dr. Delsa Ghorban, Delsa, Timor Shaidaie, K’z Dance run by their founder Kalpesh Zalavadiya and Negar Mendegar. Also, we saw a performance by WMA, which consists of powerful women who are drawing attention to the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan. The festival also included a variety of food stalls, melting pots of flavours, cultures, and culinary traditions – Kebab, Qabuli, Chips and Burgers, Partha, Manto, Bolani, cold noodles and pastries. We also had face painting designs, football competitions and henna artists, allowing a wide range of ages to enjoy embracing cultural beauty in various forms. Moreover, the ACAA’s supplementary school presented an extraordinary poetry performance.
Day 2: Ukrainian Day
The Ukrainian Day, took place on the 25th June, included live music, children’s activities, poetry, dance, among others by Ukrainian artists including Andriy Kyrychenko, Ukrainian Music Band Atmasfera, Olena Gorbenko’d ETNO Fashion Show, etc. The celebration was packed with activities for children such as face painting and bubble show. There were also a variety of stalls selling traditional Ukrainian food and handicrafts on the day. The festival was not only an unmissable opportunity for the public to learn about the unique Ukrainian culture and arts but also an exciting opportunity for Ukrainian businesses and small entrepreneurs to present their excellent goods and services.
At the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association our cultural events are more than celebrations – they’re a testament to the strength of unity in diversity, nurturing the spirits of all who partake. Different International and Ukrainian artists livened the second day including a traditional Middle Eastern dancer Farrah, the talented Andriy Kyrychenko, captivating music by DJ Elizabeth, soulful melodies of EKA Project, led by the talented bandura player Eka Caterina, as they take the stage at our festival, Kateryna Tsarkova also known as Eka Caterina, has translated traditional Ukrainian songs and eloquently conveys the essence and soul of her people, sounds of Nikita Piven accompanied by Yaroslav Ponomaryov on bass and Roman Bytsko on drums Kharkiv, the mantras with the Ukrainian band Atmasfera (twin sisters Yamuna and Kalindi), Oleno Gorbenko showcased an extraordinary Etno Fashion Show and last but not least Hynda Krystina and Yuliia Liashenko.
This Refugee Week proved to be a resounding success as we brought joy to over 10,000 people, particularly reaching refugees and asylum seekers residing in hotels. They were able to join and enjoy the radiant ambiance of the festival and fulfil their sentimental longing of homeland. The festival was emotionally uplifting, especially in light of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers. In fact, cultural activities are widely acknowledged for their significant positive influence on the mental health and well-being of refugees. This is why our organisation has consistently committed itself to uniting individuals through cultural events, fostering a greater sense of community spirit and unity.
Written by Malak Al-Kasadi