People in the Asylum System share their Experiences

This week, the MAC hosted a unique event, Weaving the Present and Shaping the Future, designed to highlight the conditions under which people in the asylum system are living in Northern Ireland.

In partnership with internationally acclaimed artist Khaled Barakeh in collaboration with Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) and the Anaka Women’s Collective, people in the asylum system were given space to give personal accounts of their living conditions and the impact on their families. Professional chefs caught in the asylum-seeking system in Northern Ireland cooked and shared a meal with the guests.

Distinguished guests included local politicians, advocacy organisations and Belfast’s new Lord Mayor Cllr Ryan Murphy, many of whom made commitments to support PPR's Lift the Ban campaign, advocating for the right of asylum seekers to work.

The evening commenced with a thought-provoking performance by Barakeh, simulating racial profiling by allowing guests of colour to enter while others were subjected to queueing and identity checks. A series of photographic works 'The Missing Camera' generated through AI technology, were displayed in the gallery, influenced by the lived experiences and testimonies of individuals caught in the asylum-seeking system in Northern Ireland. Complementing this, were eleven powerful photographs of asylum-seeking artists, creatives, tailors, and designers wearing fashion items they had re-tailored from the clothes provided upon their arrival in Northern Ireland. The workshop participants presented these garments in an activist "catwalk" demonstration to round off the evening.

All collaborators involved in the event have fled conflict zones and are now living in temporary accommodation. They receive £9.11 per week to live on, and none have the right to work. This event at the MAC was an opportunity to examine and discuss the issues faced by people in the asylum system who have fled violence and war to seek safety in Northern Ireland and highlighted the resilience and skills of artists, creatives, designers, teachers, accountants, scientists, mothers, daughters, and brothers who risked their lives for safety.

Speakers at the event included the MAC Chief Executive Anne McReynolds, Rt Hon. Lord Mayor Cllr Ryan Murphy, Twasul Mohammed from PPR (Participation and the Practice of Rights) and mother of two, engineer and activist, Afraa Mahdi who has been living in a one-bedroom city centre hotel room with her two children for 8 months. Like all people in the asylum system, Afraa, though a skilled professional, is not permitted to work while she is in the system.

Artist Khaled Barakeh, originally from Syria, told the guests that asylum seekers, like everyone else, are eager to become active citizens when given the opportunity. Work not only provides strength and dignity but also empowers individuals. People can amaze you with their extraordinary effort and ingenuity when allowed to express their creativity, despite all that they went through.

Elaine Forde, MAC Creative Learning Manager said: “This evening we saw powerful art created by artist Khaled Barakeh, in collaboration with artists, designers, tailors, accountants, biologists and skilled people who are caught in the asylum-seeking system, whose lives have been interrupted by violence and conflict. We are delighted that many of our guests – politicians and cultural leaders – made commitments to PPR’s Lift the Ban campaign to raise awareness of the environment asylum-seeking people endure in Northern Ireland.”

Elfie Seymour, Organiser at Participation and the Practice of Rights, said: “This event showed how many individuals, organisations, and businesses are responding to the hostile environment with practical solidarity and generosity through our Kind Economy network. We hope that those in power will catch up with the innovation and compassion that others are showing and will help us to continue to build thriving and supportive communities.

The event was made possible thanks to our funders Cultural Bridge, Paul Hamlyn, Social Change Initiative, Community Foundation Northern Ireland, Arts Council Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, and Gilbert-Ash, and was part of the MAC’s current community-led exhibition At The Table. It aims to challenge who is and isn’t invited to “the table” where decisions that determine our lives are made. The MAC has been shortlisted for this year's Art Fund Museum of the Year award, the world’s largest museum prize. The winner will be announced on 12 July.

A series of work created with Khaled in collaboration with people seeking asylum in NI will remain in the gallery during Refugee Awareness Week (19 - 25 June) and until At the Table ends on 2 July.

There are two sets of images:

The Missing Camera: Images generated through AI from people’s lived experience of fleeing their home country for safety.

Stitched Stories: 11 images of our collaborators who redesigned and reimagined 2nd hand clothes they were given when they arrived in NI seeking safety. Each person is photographed wearing their redesigned clothes, in a local location of their choice. The redesigned clothes have enabled asylum-seeking people to reclaim their confidence and seek respect, encouraging others to do the same and prompting policy and decision makers to get these issues addressed.