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Refugees tell their story through art

The Avatars

KAMPALA – “This is the first time I have participated in an art exhibition. It has been a wonderful opportunity to show people that even refugees have talent. I feel very blessed,” Junior Tobu, 22, a refugee from South Sudan said to an audience listening in quiet admiration during the opening reception of the World Refugee Day art exhibition on Thursday, June 20 in Kampala.

The exhibition, “Storytelling Through Art” is the first celebration of World Refugee Day organised by the World Bank in partnership with the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) in the Office of the Prime Minister, Republic of Uganda. It was livestreamed on social media, and the winner presented to an audience in the Preston Auditorium at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington.

A total of 20 refugee artists from various refugee settlements in Uganda participated in the 3-day exhibition. Four of artists are refugee children from South Sudan aged between 6 and 14 years, currently living in the suburbs of Kampala. The event was held at Design Hub, a co-working warehouse facility in Kampala’s Industrial Area, providing an affordable home for young entrepreneurs and creative artists.

While the exhibition was held under the theme of expanding social and economic opportunities for refugees and host communities, the art itself was varied and revealed a range of artistic approaches; from paintings, drawings, wood sculptures, collages, mosaic, prints, and crafts. Works illustrated the significance of the theme ‘Expanding Social and Economic Opportunities’ through highlighting the creativity, innovation and resilience of refugees and host community by showcasing non-traditional, creative and innovative means refugees undertake to create income generating activities to support themselves and their families.

There were strong underlying themes of resilience and the environment. One of the paintings depicted an urban modern jungle –green creepers surrounding tall skyscrapers and a satellite dish beaming signal.

The real stars of the exhibition were the refugee children. Their ten paintings took guests on a fantasy journey through Wakanda and Wonderland – weaving imaginations through jungles full of elephants, colourful birds, bears, and butterflies. The paintings were heavily laced with feeling and emotions. There was Winnie the Poo who seemed scared of sitting on what looked like an unseen latrine. Then there was the black bear who was scared out of his wits and woods.

“I want to become a famous artist who will have my artworks collected all over the world and in all the major galleries,” said Richard Yaba, 9, an artist from South Sudan.

Each of the artists had a touching life story to tell. Junior, for instance, does not know the whereabouts of his parents and two siblings, or whether they are still alive. His biggest wish is to be reunited with them someday. At 21, Vose Iratukunda, from Burundi, takes care of his parents and three siblings. Art, which he says is his passion, enables him to provide for them. Guy Aculle Gatore had ’s dream was to exhibit in Kampala. Gatore has realized a part of that dream.

Taking a Step #WithRefugees, the exhibition aimed to provide a platform and the opportunity for refugees and host communities to express their talent and creativity and expand their social and economic opportunities.

Tony Thompson, the World Bank country manager said the event was not only about the art but also a celebration of the resilience, strength and determination of the refugees to thrive far away from home. “I am here as a sign of solidarity. I am here because the international community wants to show solidarity with the refugees,” he said.

Uganda is recognised for having the most generous and progressive open-door refugee policy in the world. The country has been hosting refugees since 1959 and is currently the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa and the third-largest host in the world with 1.27 million refugees and asylum seekers. Refugees live alongside local hosting communities in peaceful co-existence; sharing natural resources and accessing the same social services.

Uganda is also well advanced in the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) – part of the Global Compact on Refugees which is committed to ensuring that refugees led productive lives and that host community to get the support they need.

“This is the moment where we say we admire and appreciate the government of Uganda for being so hospitable to these refugees. This praise is well deserved because it is indeed very impressive to host so many refugees whenever they come into the country in a very short period. 1.25m is very abstract. The story is more compelling when you go to the individual level and I am very pleased to be here and see some of these refugees who have stories to tell through their art. The more I look at the paintings, the artwork, the more they speak to me, the more colourful their story becomes. Instead of looking at the numbers, I think it’s important to recognize that these are 1.25 million individuals who have their talents, their backgrounds, who are not only a burden to the countries they go to but also contribute in the countries they are now. We want these refugees and the host communities to become economically active in whatever they can do. Some are doctors, some are teachers, some are artists. I think it’s important to all of us to realize that we need a concerted effort to bring out all these talents and to make sure that they contribute to the country where they are right now,” H.E. Henk Bakker, Ambassador of the Netherlands in Uganda.

The event also featured an auction of a graffiti piece, entertainment from an energetic traditional dance troupe of Burundian refugees that caused the Dutch ambassador, H.E. Henk Jan Bakker who was the Chief Guest to tap his feet rhythmically.

In the end, it was an evening well spent. For the 20 refugee artists, it was an opportunity to network, to connect and support one another through an association they formed after the opening night of the exhibition. The Storytelling will continue. That’s for sure.

About the Uganda Forced Displacement Program (winner of 2018 AFR VPU award)

The World Bank has significantly scaled up its effort through its Forced Displacement Program to help secure the sustainability of the Government’s progressive refugee policies and practices and support the Government’s efforts through a combination of policy dialogue, investment financing, knowledge and research. In addition to the DRDIP Additional Financing and the initial operation, two other projects – $360m USMID Additional Financing and $280m Integrated Water Management and Development Project – have been approved by the Board  and include refugee-host community components that are focusing on various interventions ranging from improving social service delivery; creating economic opportunities and upgrading infrastructure in refugee-hosting districts.

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