Angela Wells, the Jesuit Refugee Service Eastern Africa Communications officer based in Nairobi, recently visited the Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. JRS works in Mai Aini, and the nearby Adi Harush camp, accompanying and serving refugees from Eritrea.
In northern Ethiopia, JRS provides Eritrean refugee youth with opportunities to learn and express themselves by providing a library, sports facility, and classes in painting, dance, music, and drama. In southern Ethiopia, JRS offers vocational training, recreational activities and psychosocial counseling to Somali refugees in camps. In Addis Ababa, the JRS Refugee Community Centre is the only space for urban refugees in the city.
Globally, JRS advocates for a more dignified refugee response - calling for integration, alternatives to camp life, safe humanitarian passages, and additional resources for countries in the Global South, like Ethiopia, to adequately respond to the needs of the vast majority of forced migrants.
During the working visit to Mai Aini, Ms. Wells spent time in a JRS recreation program for youth that encouraged young refugees to express themselves artistically. The art classes art classes allow young people to express their visions, fears and memories about their dangerous journeys towards freedom.
The enforced idleness of camp life often adds to the despair of refugees, having already been forced to flee their homeland and trek across the desert to seek safety, refugees find themselves 'stuck' in a camp with little to do. JRS aims to combat this stress through recreational activities, and by providing a study space and library services.
Ms. Wells writes about a new effort to share the work of these young refugee artists:
Millions of refugees are isolated from the rest of the world and as a result their daily routine becomes mundane and their talents are often squandered. Eritrean refugees in northern Ethiopia, however, have found ways to let their talents shine -- creating dozens of paintings through a Jesuit Refugee Service Fine Arts class in Mai Aini refugee camp.
The JRS campaign Artists in Motion seeks to bring these creative stories of painters living in isolation into the spotlight and in front of audiences of policy makers, humanitarian workers, refugee populations and civil society members who can advocate for their calls of integration, opportunity, human rights and welcome.
The paintings depict narratives symbolic of challenges faced by diverse refugee populations. They take the viewer on a journey of displacement -- encompassing love and family, loss and limbo, hopes and dangers, and the ultimate yearning of acceptance and welcome in new societies.
The artists, ranging from 13 to 45 years of age, relieve stresses of trauma and losing loved ones through artistic expression. They also say it inspires conversations among their community about their own personal experiences, grievances and hopes.
The Artists in Motion campaign booklet is available in hard and soft copies.
The following video explores the story of the JRS Fine Arts teacher, Mebrahtu:
The campaign will also be on display in worldwide painting exhibitions. In July, JRS launched the exhibition in Nairobi at the Samosa Festival, which promotes African cohesion and integration. The paintings were later exhibited at an event with 200 people at community center with refugees and locals in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, and at a conference on human trafficking within and from Africa in Nigeria.
In the coming months, the exhibition will hopefully tour in Europe and the United States.
All are welcome to come visit the events and exhibitions. If you feel moved by these artistic stories, share them with your networks and engage with us on social media using the hashtags: #ArtistsinMotion and #art4change.
For more information about Artists in Motion contact
Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer