Passage To Asylum: Living the life of a million refugees in 30 mins
New Delhi: She is an unnamed 14-year-old refugee girl from Somalia, a survivor of conflict who fled child marriage and rape and sought asylum in an unknown country. Her application was rejected because the details of her past were sketchy, but her journey has been brought to life through an “immersive” audio-visual art exhibition by Delhi-based refugee law centre Migration and Asylum Project (MAP).
‘Passage to Asylum: The journey of a million refugees’ is a 30-minute art series currently displayed at India International Centre. It contains six contiguous installations or rooms that depict the life of refugees through various stages — home, conflict, transit, alien country, asylum tribunal, and if they are lucky, rehabilitation.
There are four profiles based on real refugees from conflict-torn countries — Somalia, Syria, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan — and the attendee can experience the life of any one of them by picking a card of their choice, and then walking through the rooms. These cards come with details of the refugee’s life — the Somali girl, a 13-year-old Sri Lankan boy who fled after LTTE attacked his home, a middle-aged businessman from Afghanistan whose house was converted to a Taliban base, and a biotechnologist from Syria.
The refugee becomes your alter ego as you walk through each room, plugged to an audio guide that recreates their lives in their homes — the sounds they heard in their native countries, the language they spoke. The first room or home is defined by unfinished business — a half-knit sweater, two unwashed tea cups left on a table, a broken wall clock. It’s the house of people who left in a hurry, sometimes overnight, to save their lives.
The audio jarringly changes to sounds of gunfire and bombings when you step into the second room, or the conflict zone. A bright red broken bicycle, an infant fee- der, a paper lantern and some burnt magazines depict the state of limbo the refugees feel as they travel to unknown lands for safety.
“The profiles are based on lives of people that MAP has represented. We work to identify and resolve the legal gaps that a refugee faces when they reach an alien country to seek asylum,” said MAP founder Roshni Shanker, a lawyer who worked with UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assess asylum claims before she founded MAP in 2013.
Currently, the organisation has 15 lawyers who provi- de legal representation for refugees seeking asylum before UNHCR in India.
The installation is a result of a two-year-long multi-jurisdictional research project, supported by the UK-based University of York, to understand the impact of legal engagement for refugees in four countries — India, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Egypt.
“We had the choice to present our findings through a seminar or a conference, however, those are attended only by experts. An art installation is more accessible and open to general public who otherwise don’t engage with topics like refugee crisis. I guess we could call this ‘artvocacy’,” said Shanker.
Artist Kalyani Nedungadi, who designed the exhibition, is the only “non-lawyer” at MAP. She joined the organisation as a digital media consultant a year ago after completing her graduation in Studio Art and History at USA-based Mount Holyoke College. “The ideation began in February 2018. Our aim was to address the myths about refugees. I have worked on some of these ideas before, including the one in installation 4, which I earlier called ‘Alone In a Room’,” said Nedungadi.
The fourth room Nedungadi mentions is the alien country, made up of flimsy white curtains, spread out like a maze. It almost seems sanitised, full of shadows of citizens of the alien country as they go about their usual business. The audio accompanying the room is a cacophony of noises, a buzz that’s difficult to decipher for an outsider.
“The alien countries always represent uncertainties. The refugees, if lucky, get asylum in a completely new environment. There is a common thread of loneliness that binds all of them, but amid this loneliness, there is a sense of hope of being understood, and we can all do our bit to make things easier for them,” said Nedungadi.