REFUGI EN CURT: “We want to provide tools so that young people can see this situation and what they see in the media from another point of view.”

06/28/2023

This month we interview Meritxell Bragulat, director of the Mostra de Cinema Àrab i Mediterrani de Catalunya (Arabic and Mediterranean Film Festival of Catalonia) and Mohammad Sharqawi, in charge of the Refugi en curt workshops, to talk about this project which brings pupils and other groups from Barcelona province closer to the different situations experienced by refugees, especially children and young people.

How and why did the project Refugi en curt arise?

Txell: We began talking at the end of 2018, beginning of 2019. A colleague from our association had close relations with Teleduca and had come into contact with various platforms devoted to education, art, culture and global justice. Quite similar to what we do as well. Teleduca is devoted to audiovisual education with children and teachers, bringing audiovisual into the classroom, both the practical part involved in learning to make short films and also the part involving analysis of the images. And in Sodepau for many years we’ve been devoted to organizing the Mostra de Cinema Àrab i Mediterrani de Catalunya.

Thanks to this Festival and our relations with Beirut DC, we received some shorts made by Syrian teenagers who were living in Lebanon, where they explained some of their experiences and what they’d lived through. For some time we’d wanted to screen these short films in a festival or another organization. It was a shame that they ended up in a drawer when, moreover, the whole subject of migration and refugees is very important. A great deal is said about this situation, but without the voice of the people who’ve experienced it. On talking with the people from Teleduca we decided that we had to take advantage of this. They also had other short films that they’d screened in their children’s film festival and we said: why don’t we start a project in which we can continue to disseminate these shorts, but in schools? Because they’re a type of short films, especially those from Syria, made by teenagers, the same as the teenagers who see them, with very different life experiences.

We also decided to invite Edualter, an organization that Sodepau founded many years ago, together with other organizations. It’s also devoted to educating in values, global justice, human rights, etc.... and to the theoretical and practical development of how to bring knowledge, criticism, how to work in the classroom on all these issues. All three organizations got together, each in its specialized area, in order to disseminate the voice of the people who experience this situation, so that they could explain why people leave their countries and what pushes them to do so and what situations they encounter. And to be able to provide tools so that young people can see this situation and what they see in the media from another point of view. To give them elements for analysis and criticism. We started in the city of Barcelona; the project went very well and awakened a lot of interest. Then we decided to open it up to other towns outside the city of Barcelona.
 

Why do you think that audiovisual can help pupils to better understand the situation of migration and refugees?

T: Over the years audiovisual has become increasingly important in our society and has made it much easier to put yourself in the place of someone else. Seeing feelings and experiences in images makes them go much deeper; they have much more effect on you than a book with which you have to imagine everything. The impact of the story will depend on your own resources. On the other hand, it’s very direct with images and films. And then also because we think that, in a world in which images are so significant, it’s important to provide tools so that people can understand, decipher and analyse, above all critically. Otherwise you end up considering things to be true which aren’t and, obviously, images aren’t neutral. We think it’s also important to influence and educate in this aspect: to know how to read this type of product, both films and news items that appear in the media.

Mohammad: It’s also the trend now. It’s the age of the Internet. This tool is used and it’s very powerful and topical to connect it to education. We mustn’t let the social media educate our society. Also, we don’t go into this field, which is very important and necessary. Pupils talk a lot about Tik Tok, Facebook, Instagram reels,... When I go to a school I talk about this as well because it’s the technology of this era. We need to work on this. But the problem is how we reach more people with this content. We also talk about this in class with the children and we listen to their experiences because they use it more.

 

Each short film is accompanied by an educational data sheet with supplementary information and a suggestion for a prior activity so that the teachers can work on it in class with the pupils. You also do face-to-face workshops. What do they consist of and what is the difference between the two?

T: On the one hand, the idea is to offer the material so that each teacher can prepare it as they want, as a resource. Many teachers don’t have time to search for this kind of material. With the shorts from Syria you can’t find them anywhere; it’s the result of a relationship of an organization which gave them to us to use. It wasn’t a question of just having the films, but of working on them and suggesting a whole series of things to discuss for them to organize themselves. We saw that the teachers do consult and use this material, but that there was a lot of demand for support, because they weren’t sure how to end up deploying it in the classroom. And the pupils can get a lot more out of it. Mohammad has experienced a situation of exile and, therefore, apart from watching the films and what the main characters explain to you, it’s explained by someone who has, in part, had similar experiences. With this support you can get much more out of what the films in themselves already provide.

M: There are many different levels between classes. Different ages, experiences, insecurity with the subject. We are not the same; the teachers are different from one class to another, and so are the pupils. On presenting the documentaries I first talk about my experience, which is very interesting for all the classes. After watching the documentaries, they ask me again about my personal life or my situation as a refugee. And they ask very personal questions. Because it’s very different seeing a real person in your classroom from a documentary where you don’t actually see the character. I’m very open and I like them to ask me. It’s interesting both for me and for them. Our experience reflects something and we have to be very open, because sometimes people ask things which are difficult to answer, but you have to do it, because it’s what they think or don’t know.

Then, with the team of teachers in each class we also talk about the future, about continuing to work on this subject. Because a lot of questions and requests arise about continuing and how to do it. Sometimes we leave more documentaries so that they can work with them. The teachers want more information about the subject; they take it as an important subject for their future work in the classroom. This is very powerful because we don’t think that it’s just one session and then that’s it. It’s a project to work on in a stable manner, in other classes with other teachers. They send me messages, because I also asked for feedback from the pupils and teachers. And there’s a lot of interest from the pupils. We know that not everyone likes one subject or another, but there are always two, three or four people who are very interested and want to continue working on this. Then we work on how to continue. They have the website; we work on the social media a lot. Now we have to make this project permanent so that everyone can take advantage of this proposal and so that we have sound, well-prepared material which reaches the people.
 

What surprises the pupils most about the situation of migration and refugees when they listen to your experience or watch the documentaries?

M: In my case when I talk about my experience, I’m stateless and I don’t have a nationality. I’m Palestinian, I was born in Syria, I came here and I got political asylum. I don’t reflect the majority of the migrant population here. There’s a lot of discussion about my profile, about Palestine, about Syria, how you live without having a nationality. It’s a rather complicated profile. It’s also very interesting for me seeing how to explain it. How they come to understand it. I’m not the only one; there are 5 million Palestinians in the world like me, but here in Catalonia or in Spain there are no more than 50 of us. So they don’t see this profile of people in the street or at school. They see the population from North Africa, sub-Saharans, Chinese, other profiles and they understand it, and there are also pupils with these profiles. But my work in the classroom is to make it global, with my profile, because it is global, not personal.

It’s also necessary to explain about international asylum law, the law on foreigners in Spain, the anti-racist law that was passed in Catalonia. All these laws are related to the profile of migrants. It depends on each class, on the age of the children. Most don’t know what an embassy or a visa is and that surprises me as well. They are at an age when they should know this, but they don’t know it because they don’t come into contact with these words; they’re not important for them. I played a game in two classes. We’ve created a virtual embassy in which the pupils are civil servants from the embassy, the ambassador, police officers and a queue of 40 pupils waiting to go in. Some get in, others don’t. I try to make it like a game, because they don’t understand it if it’s complicated.
 

What are the most deeply rooted prejudices that you encounter in the classrooms as regards migration and refugees?

M: Ukraine, for example. The majority just see the news headline. They don’t know why the Ukrainians are at war, how we reached this situation. They don’t know what’s behind all this. It’s also a reflection of society. They are like that because they are young, but society thinks like that and they reflect this awareness. They know a few things about Syria, for example, as Txell said, when we present the project with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but the conflict began 13 years ago so they’ve had enough time to get to know it.

There’s also the relationship between the pupils and the immigrant population. Few people have relations in the schools where I’ve been. It depends on the area and the social class. In the centre of Sitges, for example, in a state-subsidized private school with middle-class children, you don’t see the natural mix that exists in another state school in a neighbourhood of Barcelona such as the Raval, for example. When I go, they see a profile that they don’t usually see come in. And when I speak I also have a different discourse, a different language to what they hear in the classes and they interact with me as if it were very distant. I try to begin by talking about the things that we have in common. About my daughter who’s in infants’ school, and who as a daughter of migrants speaks Catalan at school, Arabic at home and Spanish in the park. How a Catalan citizenship of Palestinian and Syrian origin is created at school. I talk about the connection between the school and creating the identity of the children. Then they begin to ask me about my personal life and it becomes closer. I see that pupils between the age of 13 and 18 have something to say. Some talk and ask questions and others don’t. I play the game again to see what they think and always at the end of the activity we do teamwork so that the people who don’t like to talk in public or ask can participate. It’s very interesting, because the people who asked don’t have a role any more and many people who hadn’t done so before now ask questions. They draw or write a letter. Based on the short film Carta a Sasha, we write a letter back to Fátima, replying, so that they feel that they are part of this problem.

It was very interesting in a secondary school, not in the classroom, but in no big room where I couldn’t play the game because of the type of space. I noticed that some pupils had something to say. A Moroccan girl talked about racism in a very powerful way. She’d never talked about this subject in class or with a teacher. About how racism killed her father a little while ago. Then I asked other pupils to come to the microphone and another Moroccan girl and a Colombian girl and others spoke. It was a space that they had never had to listen to a language and a discourse for the first time and that’s important. The teachers were very excited. They try to talk about this topic, but the pupils tell them: “what do you know about that, you won’t understand it. I need a safe space to talk about that”. And it’s necessary to find a way for them to have this space, because it’s very important both mentally and psychologically. You’re at school with friends, you’re happy with this relationship, but something is missing, someone is missing who understands you in relation to this subject.
 

Do you think that more presence about these situations is needed in the classrooms?

T: There are very few teachers from other origins and a very small presence in the media. There aren’t any communication or interaction spaces unless you look for them. As Mohammad explained, you need to give an opportunity and feel that there’s a space where precisely the people who never talk can talk. It’s often the people who are Catalan, but whose origin is in Morocco or another country. We had encountered this and it’s also one of the reasons why we thought that this project was necessary and positive. Before, with the Festival, we’d done screenings for schools; they came to the cinema and we screened an Arabic film that they could understand and that they might like. And just when it came to the time for the discussion, the only people who asked questions were the pupils of Moroccan or Algerian origin who normally don’t speak in class. The teachers told us that normally these children don’t speak in public. On showing them a film that talks about a situation that they know, it’s the first time that they can talk with knowledge from their own experience about a situation that the others have no idea about. It was interesting because it was a space where these changes of role took place. This obviously needs to be done more, and we need a much greater presence of people from other origins, who have had other experiences and have another way of seeing things. People like Mohammad. And in the media as well, not just talking about refugees, but about any subject. We also need interviews with doctors, scientists, primary school teachers,... people who do anything, not just what we suppose that migrants do. And we need to explain the law on foreigners, the subject of asylum, everything that Mohammad does, which a lot of people don’t know and no one explains to them.
 

Is there a big gap in knowledge?

T: It’s accepted. There’s no criticism. There are already certain sectors of society which say that this law is racist and that the only thing it does is to worsen things and keep people in a situation with no rights or in conditions of inferiority in relation to native people. It’s outrageous. And it’s widely accepted here that things are like that and you can’t change them. It’s very important that Mohammad includes all that part. If they do those jobs it’s not because they can only do this; it’s because there’s a law on foreigners and a capitalist system which says that these people come to do that.

And what happens after a workshop? You never know. After watching a film, people are greatly affected and discover situations that they didn’t know or only through what the media explain, but not through how people experience them. Maybe it ends with this impact or maybe it encourages them to continue learning. There will be kids who later on will maybe look for more information or it will be useful for people like this girl who explained her experience, because she’s done something extraordinary, to speak in public about what she’s experienced and to denounce a situation, something that she’d never done. From now on, a change will be sure to come. This is something that has to be done gradually and that it’s very difficult to assess and evaluate. If you don’t do it, there’s no possibility of sharing these experiences. The films are always by American or French people, and those who write are always Europeans as well, mostly men,... It seems that it’s only possible in this way, that the other people who have other origins or other languages, don’t write, or paint, or make films, and can’t be doctors... It’s a very biased view of reality and of ourselves. The fact that there are spaces, however small, to present all this, and to put it on the table, will eventually have some impact. The fact that it exists is better than if it didn’t, but we need much more.