Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In English Countryside, Visitors Get Taste of Refugees' Experience on the Run

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In English Countryside, Visitors Get Taste of Refugees' Experience on the Run

Article excerpt

"Move on!" a male's voice booms, as visitors to Joe Howson's front yard are shuttled along a journey pierced by gunshots and marked by risk and rejection at all turns.

It's the sort of experience few would expect to find in the English countryside, on a plot hemmed in by sheep farms and the Forest of Bowland.

But that's why Mr. Howson created this eight-room space that takes people through a refugee's experience so that they understand just what asylum seekers are fleeing back home, and what they are finding in Britain once they arrive.

And the exhibit couldn't come at a better time here, as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis in decades, and Britain hears that their country is "full" because of record levels of immigration.

"I think there is a lot of unease at the moment in the UK around immigration," says Howson, an educator who focuses on experiential projects to work against political polarization.

'U R not Welcome'From the outside, Howson's exhibit looks like the kind that might appear on the carnival circuit. But it's built around the experiences of three real refugees: a teenage girl from Afghanistan whose family has escaped the threats of the Taliban; a Christian in Iran whose friends have been tortured for practicing their faith; and a Sudanese woman whose husband has gone missing and who faces mass rape if she stays at home.

As visitors walk through the rooms, they hear the refugees' stories, with voices and sound effects to bring them to life. Visitors are taken through being awoken in the middle of the night to head to the border, sitting in the back of a lorry, and inside a crammed fishing boat. A baby has died on the way. "Move on to the next station!" the narrator's voice screams.

They head into the next room, set at Heathrow Airport. "Passports! Are you asylum seekers? Who brought you here?"

Once they arrive on British soil, they are pelted with Pepsi cans by youths. They pass walls that read in red spray paint, "U R not Welcome."

The original exhibit was built a decade ago, amid an earlier wave of migration. Now Howson is recreating it and plans to incorporate Syrians' experiences fleeing their country's war. The new version will be portable, so that he can fold it up and take it to schools and public spaces across the country. City councils have sought his exhibit to prepare communities for the arrival of new refugee families.

Immigration angstAt a glance, it seems absurd that Britain needs such lessons. Step into London, or other major cities, and the energy of multi-ethnic societies that share public space is palpable. Just this month, Britain celebrated its integration when Nadiya Hussain, a British Muslim of Bangladesh descent who wears a veil, won Britain's "Great British Bake Off" with her "big fat British wedding cake. …

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