Cats On The Run is a participatory project funded by Lankelly Chase Foundation, conceived and directed by Dr. Rhetta Moran, a founder and former Trustee of RAPAR, and produced by Sheba Arts in collaboration with Culture Bridge, Kanlungan Concercium, and SWAN. Working with 22 undocumented people from Greater Manchester including migrant workers, asylum seekers, and those who fell through the cracks because of Covid-19 and the lockdown, a team of seven artists, community workers, and creative helpers, supported the participants to create a piece of work and express themselves using creative tools. This essay sheds lights on the process of the project, and the socio-economic challenges these people are facing in the UK. It is adapted from a report by Dr Rhetta Moran.
'No project activity takes place in a vacuum. On the contrary, outside of this project but coincident with its timeframe (August 2020 – March 2021), socioeconomic, cultural, political and legal developments, framed as reactions to the emergence of Covid-19 related directly to this projects’ participants: migrant communities most marginalised by Covid-19.
The first lockdown began on 23rd March 2020. At this time, Minister Kevin Foster responded to a question about what measures had been taken to ensure those in the country would be able to seek medical help by asserting: “No one should fear accessing medical advice from our superb NHS due to an immigration reason.”
In some places, hotels housing asylum seekers during the coronavirus pandemic were attacked and a few weeks later, the Home Affairs Committee published its report on Home Office preparedness for COVID-19. This report highlighted many issues of concern relating to displaced people: the quality or levels of accommodation, personal allowances, safeguarding and risk assessments, impact on mental health, lack of provision of internet to enable people to access information, consult GPs etc, lack of provision of sanitising and other products and zero increase in allowances to enable people to buy these products themselves.
It was during this period that Boris Johnson was compelled to intervene in the case of Mercy Baguma, who had lost her Leave to Remain status (visa) and job. She was found dead in a flat in Glasgow next to her one-year-old son. In that case, very widely reported, the asylum application had been pending for the child’s father who, following the mother’s death, was now the boy’s sole carer. A week later, the Home Office ‘work’ that directly interfered in the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced people, including children in families, was condemned by the Public Accounts Committee.They revealed a myriad of humanity-denying actions authorised through Home Office powers and leaving major question marks over a multitude of migration related decisions.
During the course of our third month, alongside other long established migrant and human organisations, we became involved in vigils commemorating lives destroyed by the hostile environment. The government mooted the idea of putting floating barriers in the English Channel to stop asylum seekers crossing to the UK, and using nets to stop dinghies. Widely reported, these announcements induced panic and fear throughout our migrant populations and the participants in this project. It stimulated extensive discussions about the impact of such announcements on the mental health and well-being of our communities in general and in particular the most vulnerable: undocumented people. Reports of the Home Office attempts to hire a private risk management company to provide a rapid review of initial accommodation for single adult asylum seekers - effectively outsourcing the monitoring of compliance with public health guidelines to prevent the transmission of Covid 19 for people housed in the asylum system - contributed further to the overall impression that, as far as the government is concerned, migrant people without status in the UK can be exempted from the public health standards that should apply to all.
By November 2020, organisations who had been working with us to secure the involvement of some of their undocumented contacts and through Status Now For All Campaing, spoke against the government intention to allow their private contractor SERCO to resume evictions into destitution during lockdown. At the same time, evidence was emerging of the alarming rise in backlog of asylum cases, even though the numbers of applications had been falling. For those who are undocumented, the knowledge that people were now waiting for over six months for an initial response to their applications to become regularised through the asylum system told them that, even when able to submit an application they may still be waiting for a further and extensive period before experiencing any real shift in their material circumstances or sense of safety.
From December onwards, moving into the second half of the project’s timeframe, the media began to become dominated by the question of the imminent availability of vaccines against COVID. However, for undocumented people, the multiplicity of barriers to their access remained. Countless people have been turned away from their GP surgeries when they tried to register, being told they needed proof of ID, of status, of address, or “we don’t deal with illegal immigrants”.
In early February Privacy International’s new report revealed the extent to which Britain is turning into a migration surveillance regime and, specifically, revealed that the current British Government is in the process of developing a ‘Status Checking’ Project which could result in any person on British soil being able to be assessed, presumably at the touch of a screen, for their status. This raised the fear that if people approached health systems for vaccination they might become detected for removal or deportation. Out of this realisation, an Early Day Motion #1442 was created through which, for the first time in British history and in direct response to the challenges posed by Covid, British Members of Parliament formalised a call for Indefinite Leave to Remain for all those undocumented and in legal process.
Later in this penultimate project month, news reached our participants of the Government’s intention to remove Osime Brown, a 22 year old man with learning disabilities and a PTSD diagnosis, to Jamaica. This was followed closely by the revelation that a new network of immigration detention centres for women was being quietly planned by the Home Office. contrary to previous pledges to reform the system and reduce the number of vulnerable people held.
Finally, as the last month of our project closed, the Government announcement of its intention to conduct “the biggest overhaul of the UK’s asylum system in decades” was met with widespread derision, summed up as: “based on false premises - particularly the actual availability of legal routes – and tears apart the principle of the right to claim asylum.”
For the past 12 months, and despite the pandemic, we have been able to demonstrate the delivery of excellent cultural experiences on a local and national level. With the lockdown restrictions continuing to put pressure on our communities, we have changed the way we work and we are adapting new strategies that make us more resilient and enable us to respond to new and future challenges: by moving online and by supporting smaller groups and individual artists by helping them design and deliver their projects. Through our mentoring support, our associate groups have received grants to deliver their projects. We consider this an outstanding achievement for the entire team. However, like many other organisations, we are limited in the number of future projects we are able to deliver due to the pandemic. Over the coming months, we will be providing support in kind for individual artists and organisations as we promised to deliver their projects. We will also develop a range of new projects and activity programmes that will help us to develop our practice and enable Sheba Arts to bring more opportunities to our communities. We are currently exploring ways to create our new Youth Digital Programme, designed to provide innovative practices in delivering digital art and up-skilling young people’s digital competencies. Our aim is to provide creative training to young people to develop sustainable digital knowledge with the hope of both inspiring and equipping participants with a broad range of digital skills such as film, media, computing and artistic performance.
If you would like to support this project, please make a donation through this link.
By Maddie Wakeling
For the past three months here at Sheba Arts we have run weekly workshops - some for the public and some just internally. All of which have been attended by a core training team. The workshops have covered a real range of skills, from working with communities to digital marketing, live streaming your show to building your first website, it's been a real journey of learning.
Our core training team are an incredible group from diverse backgrounds and practices - they are artists, entrepreneurs, community workers and advocates. Together we have learnt, discussed and shared skills and experience. It's been a pleasure to be a part of a process of learning which has been so sustained. Often as freelancers we go to online workshops where we are an anonymous face on a screen, we don't have the chance or don't feel comfortable to share or enter discussions and when it's over we never hear from anyone again. I find these can be challenging spaces to learn in and intimidating places to ask questions.
The Sheba Arts training gave us an opportunity to learn in a way which was far more discursive, the workshops were inclusive and welcoming. We also held regular meetings to reflect on what we’d learnt and what we’d found challenging. All the workshops also gave time to share, as our core training team have a wealth of experience and we learnt alot from listening to each other.
I'm really excited to see the work that our core training team will continue to do, as artists and community workers in their own right and hopefully in future collaborations with Sheba Arts. We have created a real sense of community as a group, supporting and celebrating each other. Too often arts spaces become competitive and exclusive. It is easy to get caught up in that, to constantly compare yourself to other artists, companies or organisations. Art is not a competitive sport. And the community around the arts should not be making a wall around spaces and resources but should instead be welcoming people in. We need the arts to become a prefiguration of the world we want and need - a world of mutual support and radical inclusivity. We want to be inspired by others, not fired into competition. We want to work with, collaborate and co-create.
Black History Month provides an opportunity for us to recognize the outstanding contributions people of African and Caribbean descent have made to the UK over many generations. From business, law and education to technology, sport and creative arts.
Although we believe that every month should be black history month, and we should stop seasoning communities, we invited three amazing black artists and entrepreneus from Manchester to discuss a few topics: diversity, use of words such as black, BAME and minority and the future of arts. This is the 5th event of a series of seminars on diverity, and grassroots arts we have organised since June 2020. they have been really successful and attracted thousands of audience members from across the country. In the wake of the BLM movement it's been really important to have a way to reflect on issues of race, representation and equality within the world of arts.
Watch the full video here:
An online event on Sheba Arts Facebook page on the 11th of June celebrated the lives of Kurdish and Iranian people in Greater Manchester and launched a digital exhibition created to document their history and culture. The exhibition is available to the public after the lockdow.
Gardens of Babylon, created by Sheba Arts and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, documents the oral histories of first-generation Kurdish and Iranian immigrants to help second generation family members connect with their heritage.
The project, which has been archived by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust at Manchester Central Library, collects cultural memories, oral histories, poetry, songs and images of Iranian and Kurdish people in Greater Manchester. Fereshteh Mozaffari, the coordinator of the project, decided to produce the oral history project after a performance about the Babylon goddess Ishtar sparked positive feedback from children and parents in Kurdish and Iranian communities. “During the performance, which was commissioned by Journeys Festival in 2017, I spoke in Farsi and Arabic, as well as English,” she explains. “The children in the audience had such an excited reaction when they heard their native language. After the show, parents brought their children to me because they had so many questions. From then, I realised these children didn’t know about their history. These issues become more obvious as they grow up and they tend to hide their identity to fit in, so I wanted to create something that would help them to learn about and celebrate their history and their culture.”
Gardens of Babylon also produced 5 children’s workshops , two physical and 3 online. At the physical sessions, children and their parents heard the life stories of the interviewees and learned the poems and songs they’d shared during the interviews for the project.
Now the pilot stage of the project is complete and the oral histories are available to the public, Fereshteh and Sheba Arts plan to document more histories and create more workshops for Iranian and Kurdish children.
“It’s really ignited something,” says Fereshteh. “We still need to evaluate the project and be realistic about what we can go on to produce, but there’s a lot of potential. We didn’t get to interview those Iranian communities who speak a different language, such as Lori, Azari, Gilaki, or people who came from different parts of the country with different heritage and background.
“But there’s a growing demand in the Iranian and Kurdish communities for creative workshops for children, so we’d like this project to have a bigger impact. We want to create a legacy for future generations of UK-born Iranians and Kurds.”
For further information about the project, visit www.shebaarts.com/projects.html
Gardens of Babylon oral history archives are available to access on the ground floor at Manchester Central Library.
Watch the documentary made by Amang Madrokhy;
There is always that sixth sense and the weird feeling; you know something is about to happen and you don't know when, where and how. I usually have this feeling in locations or buildings, for example I pass by a street and that feeling tickles me and tells me I am here for something special or different.
My most recent Deja vu happened in February and before the arrival of this bloody virus. I remember on the 6th of February, I took the tram from Manchester Market Street to my sister's house in Cornbrook. My son was sleeping on the pram so I suddenly decided to film everything. I filmed people, cars, shops and life as the tram was moving across the city. I later posted that short vidro on my Instagram and it became an inspiration for my visual art.
When things got crazy, especially with panic-buying, I looked at the video and it made me cry. That normal movement of life in the video looked so surreal, and now I had to find nappy for my one year old son, because nappies were out of stock in supermarkets.
There was no pasta, no eggs, and no flour on the shelves, and I was experiencing different feelings. News became more and more about Coronavirus and it felt like we were getting closer to the end of human existence on earth. I was thinking about the beautiful earth and all the damage we have done. I remembered animals faces during the fire in Australia just before the pandemic and it felt like the earth was trying to say ''THAT'S IT. I HAVE HAD ENOUGH. YOU DON'T DESERVE ME''. I even imagined the earth had a Cobra meeting with the universe on how to give a lesson to these stupid human beings that only using earth to sustain themselves and don't care about anything. Like a landlord that is unhappy with the way you are damaging their property and asking you to evacuate.
When these thoughts hit me, I start pickling vegetables and mixing them with vinegar which is a Persian traditional side dish called 'Torshi'. It gave me some distractions which I needed. I pickled cauliflower, carrot and cabbage. While chopping the vegetables, I was thinking I wish I could throw my worries into vinegar and close the lid. Then I check on it after some time and they turn into delicious, and positive feelings.
As human beings, we lost the most important part of our existence which was our social life. Losing social life for me was like a cat that someone cuts it's whiskers. After a while, I started feeling better and I created visual art to keep my mind off the crisis and to straighten my mind. It works about though I get worried for people who don't do art. At least we have a way to express ourselves and to escape, but the more you think in this lockdown the more this virus drives you mad. This lockdown showed me people's gardens, living rooms and specially the gap between us in the society. So many people are living in small homes or flats with young children and this lockdown has been hard for them. Some also have to live with abusive housemates or family members. Women and children suffered the most and this lockdown will continue for some time. The tragic part of it is that we all think about the virus, talk about it and have weird dreams and wondering why.
Some people tried to dance the virus away on Tik Tak to find new followers. Some became anxious and the lockdown meant too much pressure and uncertain future for them. The only good side of the lockdown is for planet earth to get a chance to rest for a few months. Also we realised that we need each other more in a new prospective.
I don't know how that lesson would effect us though and I don't know how soon we will go back to our so called ''normal routine''. I have missed people and life without a virus and I also want more serious actions to help our planet and our existence. I'm thinking of growing my own vegetables, maybe next time when I make pickles I will be proud of myself as a human being.
Mahboobeh is a multi disciplinary artist based in Manchester.
Follow her on Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/Mahboobeh.MCR/
and Instagram: Maboobeh.MCR
This poem is dedicated to the victims of Anfal chemical attacks. Anfal was a genocide that killed between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurds as well as a couple of thousand Assyrians in Iraq (1986-88).
April my friend, my spirit, my sweet season, my love, my joy and my shiny attire
April my nightmare, my scream, my reflection, my tears, and my blue sapphire
My remedy and my healing poison, my praying beads and my martyrs' mountain
King of my grief, my mirror in shattered pieces, and carrier of my spattered leaves
I hate flash backs, I resist to grief, I cover my scars, I don’t want to bleed
I own my kingdom, but I can’t reach the ground or go back to my motherland
I can't go back to the bombing planes! Thousands of souls disappeared on a March day
Those who survived they were scarred and misshapen, looked alive but their souls were divinely embalmed
Anfal and Halabja are calling on me, thousand souls choked to death, or buried alive, when chemicals arrived
Young women were enslaved and sold, children the elderly and young men caged, homes confiscated
Homes turned to graveyards, people turned to ghosts, dead or alive no difference, no one there to hear
Years came and went and I’m still standing here, telling you stories and adding my fear from today
My heartbeat is racing, my eyes are dull, my body’s here, my soul is pulling me towards home
Dancing and shouting “My heart Beats! My Silhouette Souls“ Where are you all gone?
Am I a coat which has been hanging in the wardrobe for years? Hoping for your highness to knock and wipe away my tears?
You know me very well, I’m proudly standing strong, telling you my glorious “Gone with the Wind” tales
April please come to me, sing for me your lovely lullaby, stories of love and Ever-Green life
You and I have seen good days and bad days, we’ve loved, we’ve cried but never given up
I can hear the birds singing above the vine leaves over the tree, praying for the buds to sprout
Parween, my angel mother said to me once; Homeland was heaven when I was born
My father built us a small house by the mountain, we had a farm a spring slides and swings
He was good at jokes, he was good at poems, our house was filled with friends and songs
Our town was small, but our hearts were huge, we lived a jolly life and shared our crops
We sang “Ay-Raqib”, and we felt resilient, we made a circle and danced the Dove dance
Can you remember one year when I came home after living away for a while on my own?
Missing my family, my home, I couldn’t wait to see my angel my mother again
Shocked by a stranger who waited near the bus, telling me to be quiet, cause everyone was dead!
Men, women, children, animals, trees, all turned yellow and fallen like autumn leaves
Adults were working and children were at schools, out of nowhere planes shrieked and zoomed
They dropped mustard bombs, the whole town was poisoned, and my heaven was doomed
Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, neighbours and even passengers
Houses, schools, mosques, shops, birds, flowers, trees and gardens, they all faded
April my best friend, take my hand again, lift my soul up high, lend me your wide wings
Free me from my fears, hold me close to bear, wipe my tears and comb my tangled hair
I want to get rid of my black clothes and wear my shiny dress, all will be OK, I don’t want to despair
Same as every year, I learn from you to rise, to smell the flowers and listen to the birds
In my heart are yesterday’s today’s and tomorrow’s pains, all engraved into my soul
I swear by your beauty, I swear by your presence, I have no regrets knowing you then or now
I will always love you, will always thank you, for being with me and for being by my side
As you will remain evergreen and cheerful, promising the desperate to find your delight
Is this a crazy survival or even a game? Am I living inside a muddled maze and can’t see the end?
A holocaust-like my life story has been! Still, if God wills, I wish and intend to make it bright
April king of the seasons, my love, my friend, my joy and my blue Sapphire
You are my blossom, my destined desire, my strength, my perfumed narcissus and my Nowruz Empire.
Time is passing so quickly in lockdown. Every morning I receive text messages and phone calls from friends to check if I am doing ok. I tell them I am ok, I send pictures of the food I have cooked or funny videos I receive on Whatsapp to cheer them up. But I can't lie, most of the time I feel anxious about the future.
Living in quarantine is pretty much like living as an asylum seeker. The difference is you don’t have money to indulge yourself in different cooking styles and you can’t watch TV simply because you can’t afford the licence. You have only £35 per week to survive. Tens of thousands of people live on canned food donated by charities and sleep in the basement of a friend’s house or in a garage/ under a bridge. I am surprised to have realised that thousands of English people are homeless and they sleep in shop doorways, on park benches and friends’ sofas. Maybe I am lucky to have a roof over my head, and an Android phone that connects me with the world for one or two hours a day?
Let me tell you about my daily routine:
9 AM : waking up:
10 AM: having a lie-in, procrastination.
11 AM: checking on social media to see what friends have been up to, and if they are doing all right. Sometimes writing a post on my Facebook or share something. Recently I wrote a dystopian story about European people seeking asylum in Africa and the Middle East because many countries will have gone under water due to global warming.
11.30 AM: making breakfast and meeting other ladies in the kitchen! I live in a Serco's shared house.
12:00: watching cooking channels on YouTube and choosing a cheap recipe for dinner. If I need ingredients, I go to the corner shop and if I can’t find them I just improvise. I can’t walk around looking for spices and veg and risk spreading the virus because I am too selfish to have a plain dinner. Adding chilli sauce will do the job.
2 PM: making phone calls to my family back home to check if they are ok. The virus is spreading across the world and it seems that governments are worried about the economy than about people getting sick. There is nothing I can do except ask them to take care of themselves.
3 PM: going for a quick walk in my local park
5 PM: having supper
6 PM: reading magazines, learning English, watching news to find out how close scientists are to a vaccine or a cure. Thinking and worrying. Speculating about the future. Thinking about the damage we have done to animals and our planet earth. We have messed up. Maybe this is a wake-up alarm. There is much to learn from a microscopic virus.
12 PM: praying and wishing for a better world after the crisis is over.
I'm Maddie Wakeling and I am an actor and theatre maker living in Manchester. I work as the Arts and Community lead at RAPAR (Refugee and Asylum Participatory Action Research) facilitating theatre workshops with a group of people seeking asylum. This work has come to a halt due to the current situation and I am now working within RAPAR and MRRC (Manchester Refugee Rights Collective) to coordinate support for people with no recourse to public funds in Greater Manchester. I am also using the time to focus on future projects for Kahlo Theatre - we have one play in development and are having regular phone calls to try to write and create remotely. We have also written a short piece of film in response to the current situation and are working to produce this soon. It's not easy working in separate homes - so much of the magic of theatre making happens in the space and can't just be thought up. I have, so far, found more time for writing though and am grateful for that.
Kahlo Theatre was formed by myself and Gerogina Russell when we graduated from the Manchester School of Theatre in the summer of 2018. We left drama school desperate to make work, work that was rooted in the exploration of a political or social issue. We wanted to play with form, tired of the conventional plays favoured by drama schools. So we created Kahlo Theatre. Our work blends movement and text. We use music from the beginning - finding and creating songs that move us from the inside.
Kahlo Theatre were due to bring a reworking of our debut play ‘Life Between Yes and No’ to the Kings Arms in Salford on the 2nd and 3rd of April.
Those dates have passed us by and we were far from performing on stage. We were instead isolated in our separate homes, both on hold as we tried to get through to the DWP along with the one million others also left unemployed by the Covid-19 crisis.
I had expected to be on the other side of the line, our play - Life Between Yes and No - is all about the DWP. It was specifically about Anna, a woman working on the front line of austerity cuts in a Department of Work and Pensions call centre, working for minimum wage, answering phone calls and following a strict script. They have to get the form filled and the person off the line in the allotted time, or they’re at risk of losing their job. As callers argue, shout or even cry down the phone, the workers’ job still remains: to get through all the questions before their time is up.
I did try to smile at the irony, instead of playing a DWP call handler I was desperately waiting for one to answer my call.
In Life Between Yes and No the voice of the caller is played by different instruments which reflect their character. Personally, I'm not sure quite what I'd be - in the play there's a violin, trumpet, piano, guitar and drums. We did this, in part, to explore the dehumanisation that happens in our welfare system. Where all our personal problems are funnelled in tick box answers.
Our welfare system, along with our asylum and immigration system, is designed to fail those who need it most. In February this year a government watchdog found 69 suicides could have been linked to problems with benefit claims over the last six years. In 2015, 3 people were dying every day after being found ‘fit for work’ when they clearly weren’t.
Around this time last year I read an article in the Guardian written by a DWP call handler which became the inspiration for our play.
“When you cry down the phone I feel like crying too, but if I speak to you for longer than 23 minutes and go off-script I risk losing my job”
Austerity is a choice, it's poverty created by policy. Our Tory government has presided over 10 years of cuts and closures to vital services. But our ministers don't spend hours listening to the cries of those that have been the worst affected.
It made us think about this huge disconnect. The decisions made from within the bubble of Westminster which day after day destroy the lives of people up and down the country - and who's manning the complaint lines? A person earning minimum wage with next to no employment rights. We become each other's soundboards so often in the world of work. It's encouraged and the systems are designed so our rage only reaches the ears of a neighbour.
As the corona virus escalates our politicians encourage us to blame each other - the people in the park, the woman on the bench, the teens hanging out on our street. At times like these it's vital we remember who got us here - who cheered at blocking a pay rise for the nurses they now applaud? Who has been shrinking the budget for social care year on year? Who maintains a system where our essential workers are paid £8.72 an hour, on zero hours contracts, while their bosses sit at home on salaries?
Lets keep hold of our anger and aim it higher.
Watch the trailer of the show on the link below:
Terrific news: Sheba Arts has received Greater Manchester Cultural Award to promote arts and culture in four different boroughs of Greater Manchester in 2020 and 2021. We will work with communities, venues and organisations over the next two years to bring new narratives of migrant and refugee communities to the mainstream using our unique grassroot methodology.
We have already established partnerships with some great venues and organisations and we are working hard to build connections with people from different communities to involve them in our future activities.
This year, Greater Manchester Combined Authority has allocated £8.6m to 35 cultural organisations. This investment recognises the diversity of Greater Manchester and the importance of supporting emerging grass root organisations. A recognition of our work and the change we bring to people's lives. This fund will enable more communities to play a positive role in the society and contribute in the vibrancy, liveability and wellbeing of Greater Manchester.
Congratulations to the organisations on the list. We look forward to working with you.