From fleeing war zones to falling in love with a new home 

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Imagine being forced to run away from your home, grabbing what belongings you can carry and leaving a war-torn life of terror behind.

You and your family get into a boat, not quite knowing where you’re heading.

The New Theatre Royal - one of the landmarks visited by the writers

The New Theatre Royal - one of the landmarks visited by the writers

After days of travelling over sea and land you see the Spinnaker Tower penetrate the horizon, with HMS Victory close-by in the harbour. This is your new home.

It is what refugees and asylum seekers experience, fleeing countries like Syria and South Sudan (as seen on the cover) to start a new life here in Portsmouth.

However, while many of us have grown up in this city, immersing ourselves in the culture and heritage, these people have no idea how important sites like the Mary Rose Museum are to Portsmouth.

But now a new project has laid the foundations for refugees and asylum seekers to learn more about the city, while also giving those already living here the chance to take a closer look at some of Portsmouth’s most important historical sites.

Portsmouth Guildhall. Picture: Supplied

Portsmouth Guildhall. Picture: Supplied

The pamphlet, Pompey in 15 Items, describes Portsmouth landmarks through their eyes, creating a deeper connection to the area.

Project coordinator Claire Woollard says: ‘We have been doing a lot of work in Portsmouth with the refugee and asylum seeker community since 2016.

‘One of the things that came up through discussions with people was that although Portsmouth has a really rich heritage and a number of historical sites, a lot of refugees and asylum seekers had not visited them.

‘There seems to be some sort of mental barrier to them going out and exploring these sites that we take for granted, so we wanted to break those down.

‘By visiting these places they then become more confident about getting out and engaging with the community, which is really important.’

The pamphlet allows the writers to share their own experiences about these places after going on visits.

One of those who has contributed to the pamphlet is 28-year-old Haisam Gendy.

Haisam has only lived in the area for a couple of years, having spent the rest of his life in Egypt.

He says: ‘When I came to England I knew that I would have a lot of history to catch up on in Portsmouth, so that I could understand what is here.

‘For the project we went to the Mary Rose Museum – it was a big group of us and we heard the story behind it and the rest of the dockyard.

‘Seeing the ship and finding out about its background really inspired me.

‘The Mary Rose is a great piece of history and it’s amazing to think about how important it is to Portsmouth.

‘I was actually a tour guide when I lived in Egypt so I absolutely loved visiting all the historical places – I think it’s really important to learn more about the area you’re living in, and to immerse yourself in the culture.

‘I knew about all of Egypt so that’s where my love of the project has come from.’

Haisam, who works as an interpreter, says that getting refugees and asylum seekers to learn more about the area makes them feel more welcome in the city.

He explains: ‘It’s nice to get to know the real Portsmouth – people growing up here know all about the history and I think it’s important for us who come over to understand as much as we can.

‘It was fantastic to work on this project; everyone in the group was really lovely.

‘I’ve made some new friends as a result and we’ve been able to fall in love with Portsmouth together.'

Another person who worked on the project is Elise Soffack, an asylum seeker who came to Portsmouth at the start of this year.

She says the the project has helped her to find out more about what used to be unfamiliar surroundings – making Portsmouth feel much more like home.

Elise says: ‘I come from Cameroon originally – I came to Portsmouth in February this year as an asylum seeker.

‘I really loved taking part in the project because it was the first time I had been able to visit different places in Portsmouth.

‘My favourite place that we visited was Portsmouth Cathedral – I am a Christian so I really loved that.

‘Doing something like this was very informative for me, and I was able to learn about what there is in Portsmouth

‘I wrote about the English Football League One trophy at the Portsmouth Guildhall – the story about the players leaving it behind after the celebration dinner was very funny.

‘But I loved going to all of these places and learning more about Portsmouth.’

The project also gave people with learning disabilities the chance to take part in the tours and visit some of Portsmouth’s historic sites.

Holly Hart from MAKE in Fratton says that it has been a great opportunity for those people in her care.

She says: ‘Every time they have been on these tours they have come back and said that they loved it.

‘It gets them out and about so stuff like this is really great for us.’

Pompey in 15 Items is part of the build-up to this year’s Journeys Festival International, which will be taking place in the city from October 19-28 – featuring a two-day musical celebration at St Mary’s Church in Fratton.

Claire Woollard says: ‘To have been involved with this project means so much to people.

‘Everyone has had a huge smile on their face when they see their work in the pamphlet – it’s just incredible.’

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The big picture

The Pompey in 15 Items project is just one part of a much bigger drive to make refugees and asylum seekers feel welcome here in Portsmouth.

ArtReach, which organised the project, is also the group behind the annual Journeys Festival International – an event which aims to promote the refugee experience through art, and features a whole host of performances, from music, to dance, film, theatre, workshops and more.

The project is well-supported by many in Portsmouth who marvel at the stunning work produced by refugee artists who have come to the city from across the world.

Taking place from October 19-28, this will be the third year of the festival.

Last year’s festival artists included world renowned Syrian kanun player Maya Youssef; local Zimbabwean artist and poet Majid Dhana and Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award winners, the Aakash Odedra Company.

Portsmouth plays host to one of three Journeys Festival International events throughout the year. 

There are other events taking place in Manchester and Leicester.

Claire Woollard said: ‘This year’s Journeys Festival International, which runs from October 19-28, will be the biggest and best yet. 

‘Projects like these help us build long-lasting connections with local people.

‘To offer people an opportunity to learn about their new home and give them an understanding of the history of the city and its people is fantastic.’