Emerging voices of refugees on show

By Mabel Kwong | 25 Jun 14

Festival review by Mabel Kwong

Emerge Festival

Victoria’s Emerge Festival  celebrates arts and culture among  emerging and refugee communities. Held across May to July in conjunction with Multicultural Arts Victoria, it  promotes diversity, social inclusion, respect between races and the breaking down of racism in Australia.

On Sunday 22 June, the Main Event, one of the highlights of the festival, offered an all-day grassroots event in Fitzroy featuring world music, a cultural marketplace and a host of local talents from diverse backgrounds. It was a day that not only celebrated cultural differences but also strived to give a voice to ethnic groups in Victoria.

Encouraging Equality and Cultural Tolerance

Attendees were encouraged to bang along on the drums set out during the African drumming workshop. Participants who had been drumming for a while generously got up and gave others – young and old, regardless of ethnicity and their knowledge of African culture – a chance to join in.

The three-hour aromatic Ethiopian coffee ceremony performed alongside the food stalls further perpetuated this notion of equality. This traditional ceremony is a mark of friendship and an example of Ethiopian hospitality. Attendees not only stopped for some coffee but also to watch the ceremony, sharing in the welcoming spirit.

Performance as a Universal Language

Respect for the creative talents of diverse groups was evident throughout the event. Formed in Kenya by Somali refugees who lived in fear of reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists while waiting to be granted asylum to Austrlaia, the Somali Peace Band played a series of up-tempo 1980s-sounding Somalian tunes. Although not a word of English was sung, the crowd applauded rapturously after each song.

the creative arts scene undoubtedly has the potential to unite those in Australia from all backgrounds, encouraging us to … admire each other for our contributions to society.

The Ehtio-jazz and funk musical fusion collaboration between Ethiopian asylum seekers The Lalibelas and local musician Harry James Angus from The Cat Empire further illustrated the respect and appreciation Australians have for minority groups and their creative ventures. By the end of the one-off band’s twenty-five minute set featuring harmonica and trumpet solos, the seats in the house were full.

A musician of Angus’ popularity joining forces with emerging artists from minority backgrounds served to highlight that Australians do take our culturally diverse residents’ artistic talents seriously. Amid such an accepting environment, musically-inclined minority groups have the freedom and space to express themselves artistically, the chance to share their passions after spending most of their lives overcoming adversity. Thus, the creative arts scene undoubtedly has the potential to unite those in Australia from all backgrounds, encouraging us to perceive one another as simply people and admire each other for our contributions to society.

Supporting Refugees and Migrant Youth

A speech touching upon the difficult lives of the newly arrived provided a sombre yet informative note during the afternoon. Sixteen-year old Anne* recounted her escape from militants in Iraq and the pain of having to leave family members behind when she came to Australia a few years ago. According to her, settling in Australia has been challenging – “the jokes are different” – and all refugees deserve to find peace in multicultural Australia: “We are all the same. Refugees are all the same”.

In addition, African youth aged 12-25 from the Yarra Youth Services had their own stage to showcase their dance moves. With their enthusiastic voices and energy to be productive community members, refugee and migrant youth deserve a greater place in Australian society, encouraged with the enthusiasm shown by Emerge  to embrace the talents and perspectives of this group.

Helping refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to feel welcome in Australia is a team effort. In between performances, the MCs for the day reminded attendees to spare a thought for refugees and related associations in Australia, urging anyone who could to offer something to volunteers collecting donations. Recently, the Refugee Council of Australia had its core funding cut and this could potentially impact on its mission to raise a voice for refugees. However, the event’s generous act of raising funds for them proves Australians, at least those at grass roots level, are willing and ready to fight for the rights of the newly arrived.

Multiculturalism and Beyond

While the festival gave refugees, asylum seekers and migrant communities a platform to showcase their artistic identities, the challenges that they face in their home countries and arrival in Australia could have been emphasised more. Naturally, it would be difficult to persuade Australians to support the newly arrived if the former do not have much of an idea of the plight the latter frequently face. The refugee-survival speech by Anne and Yarra Youth Services pamphlets detailing the creative achievements of hardworking migrant youth that were handed out at the event are promising signs.

Earning respect, gaining confidence and feeling a sense of belonging in Australia often does not come easy for those who choose to leave their country and start afresh here. Overall, Emerge’s Main Event was an energetic event that allowed refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to express themselves creatively though the arts while aiming to inspire Australians to be compassionate towards this demographic.

*names have been changed