Asylum seeker and refugee arts festival celebrates the people behind the headlines

Down Up Side by Another Story Collective is part of Journeys Festival International, 2020Down Up Side by Another Story Collective is part of Journeys Festival International, 2020
Down Up Side by Another Story Collective is part of Journeys Festival International, 2020
A three-week festival of the refugee and asylum seeker experience and artworks created by them has been part of the Portsmouth cultural calendar since 2016.

Journeys Festival International (JFI) launched in Leicester in 2013, branching into sister events here and in Manchester.

The festival programmes have featured a lively mix of music, theatre, film, spoken word, interactive exhibitions and much more. And they weren’t just in venues and galleries, they often featured in public spaces – engaging with the public in new and interesting ways.

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However, as with so many other events, the Covid-19 pandemic forced a rethink for this year.

Moving online, the festival takes place from Monday, September 28, to October 18, exploring different elements of the refugee experience, and living up to the festival name, will share artwork and events created by international artists who have sought sanctuary in Europe.

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Pussy Riot and Belarus Free Theatre featured in the first Portsmouth JFI

For Portsmouth JFI producer Claire Woollard, this year has meant working more closely with her Manchester and Leicester colleagues.

‘We didn't reach the point where we decided it was it was never going to happen,’ says Claire.

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Wonderland by Mohammad BarrangiWonderland by Mohammad Barrangi
Wonderland by Mohammad Barrangi

‘We had a period where we were trying to put various different scenarios in place, and had different plans for how we might be able to run something physical – what different measures we might need to put in place for different levels of restrictions and social distancing.

‘We realised that actually, we would need to make a decision fairly quickly as to whether we were just going to move online, because we needed to start moving things forward and contracting artists and it was too difficult to try and do with everything really unknown.

‘Once we made the decision that we were going to go digital, it was a very different process, but it made it easier in that we could actually start planning and start making things happen.

‘It's been really, really different this year in terms of how we've worked, obviously, but it has opened us up to be able to work with artists anywhere and everywhere. We can work with people across Europe and across the globe, which has been an exciting opportunity.

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As Far As Isolation Goes by Tania El KhouryAs Far As Isolation Goes by Tania El Khoury
As Far As Isolation Goes by Tania El Khoury

‘And I'm working on projects with my colleagues in Manchester and my colleagues in Leicester in a way that we wouldn't normally do, which has been really nice. It's been a much more cohesive and joined up way of us working together on something, and it's quite exciting.’

While there may not be events people can attend in their respective cities, local organisations are still part of what they do, like Aspex Gallery at Gunwharf Quays.

‘We've got Little Journeys into Creativity, which are family activities that are being released every Saturday.

‘We're doing them in partnership with a couple of different organisations or artists, and the last day is with Aspex, which is great.

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Musician and activist Mohammed Yahya will lead a workshop as part of Journeys Festival International 2020Musician and activist Mohammed Yahya will lead a workshop as part of Journeys Festival International 2020
Musician and activist Mohammed Yahya will lead a workshop as part of Journeys Festival International 2020

‘There'll be a video that we're sharing at 11 o'clock, on that Saturday (October 17), and then that will be available for the weekend for families to watch and enjoy.’

There’s also Halabja: In the Golden Days by Gulan, a charity promoting Kurdish culture.

‘They’re based in London, but worked really closely with the Portsmouth Kurdish community,’ explains Claire. ‘They've put together an online magazine exploring the town of Halabja which was the site of this horrific mass genocide attack in the 1980s and it's overshadowed what the city is remembered for and how people relate to it.

‘It used to be a really thriving cultural city with loads to offer and it still is, but it's not what it's known for anymore. They're trying to revive that and remember that and it’s got a lot of reflections and interviews with people, some really high profile figures from the area, which is really exciting.’

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Anita David is part of Roots Portsmouth, the festival’s advisory panel. Originally from Pakistan, she came to the UK as an asylum seeker eight years ago. Three years ago, she met Claire and got involved in a writing workshop.

‘I wrote a play for that festival and it was quite successful,’ she recalls. ‘I never thought I would actually write a play which would be performed in a theatre – it’s not something I envisioned for myself.’

Dane Baptiste will headline a comedy night featuring stand-up from refugees and asylum seekersDane Baptiste will headline a comedy night featuring stand-up from refugees and asylum seekers
Dane Baptiste will headline a comedy night featuring stand-up from refugees and asylum seekers

This year she is introducing If You Want To Be Alive...Read My Lips by Maral Mamaghanizadeh, a deaf artist from Iran.

‘These festivals and these projects, they help the asylum seekers to be integrated into society and get in touch with the local community, and practice their language skills.

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‘It’s creating awareness in the local community too, which also helps.

‘And it gives asylum seekers a sense of belonging, and gives opportunities to practice their skills and talents – hidden talents sometimes, and also gives them encouragement and confidence. Asylum seekers are often at their lowest when they come here, so this is the best way to help them look forward and think about the future.’

JFI has often featured projects in public spaces which have created interaction with the wider public.

But as Claire says: ‘We really wanted to include some of that this year, and that was part of our original plans, but it just wasn't able to happen because of various restrictions and families.

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‘We would definitely love to return to doing that next year.’

Many of the online events are free to view or participate in.

‘We have some events that have a suggested donation amount, but you can still book a ticket without that,’ Claire adds.

To see the full line-up go to


Audiences can expect musical influences from Eastern Europe Folk with Muha Band, DJs, an enthralling vocalist from Italy, Vivi, and a Manchester based youth choir, Young Amani.

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As well as a whole schedule of live bands and DJs, fans can spend more time with the Mozambican rapper, Mohammed Yahya, as part of a special workshop examining political issues in a Hip-Hop for Human Rights workshop. Yayha will deliver a workshop exploring how hip-hop has impacted different communities, justice and the way we think about our collective being.

For festival-goers wanting a moment to reflect, the visual beauty of Mohammad Barrangi’s work, Wonderland, will transport them into another world of personal exploration. Using Persian calligraphy and illustrations with modern printmaking techniques to share his own story of life as an Iranian refugee seeking asylum in the UK. From once representing Iran internationally as an athlete, the artist lives and works in the UK and recently, two of Barrangi’s works have been acquired by the British Museum for their permanent collection.

Journeys Festival works in collaboration with other artistic organisations, and this year’s festival is in partnership with UK based Theatre Company of Sanctuary, Stand and Be Counted Theatre Company and Tafadzwa Muchenje, who will be working with contemporary performance artist Pankaj Tiwari. Pankaj, originally from India and now based in Holland, is exploring different perspectives of feeling trapped either side of the English Channel and questioning who has the freedom to move and why Pankaj has just completed a walk from the Netherlands to Calais and will be showing a film of that journey.

Manchester-based artist, Parham Ghalamdar, has teamed up with fellow Iranian filmmaker Morteza Khaleghi. Together they’ll investigate the daily life of a long-term refugee camp resident using film, animation and storytelling. Ghalamdar himself is also working with the award-winning team at Limina Immersive to recreate an Iranian graffiti site in a virtual reality exhibition.

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Journeys Festival has embraced the digital age in many ways and this year’s programme includes a sci-fi adventure where audiences can travel to space in a 3D experience by two Manchester-based artists, Bedos Mavambu and Pablo Melchor of Another Story Collective. In Down Side Up, spoken word poetry, soundscapes and 3D illustrations will allow attendees to travel with young Bedos Mavambu from the Republic Democratic of Congo to the planet, Mancunia, before landing back on earth to share their tales of travelling with artists around their country, world and even further beyond.


Since June 2019, Portsmouth has been a City of Sanctuary.

It is part of a UK-wide network backed by dozens of organisations, including ArtReach, the producers of JFI, offering safety and sanctuary to anyone fleeing violence and persecution or who is vulnerable and isolated.Sanctuary Integration Project is an initiative by PCoS to integrate vulnerable people. It includes English language provision, conversation clubs and mentoring programs for vulnerable young people.Anita David is deputy chairwoman for PCoS and says: ‘We are also looking at lots of language learning provisions for vulnerable people, they don’t have to be refugees or asylum seekers – it includes other migrants as well.’Go to

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