What We Should Know About Immigration, Refugees and the Arts

There are more forcibly displaced persons worldwide than ever before. Arts have a role in easing the crisis.

"I Wonder Where You Are Now: the Rwandan refugees abandoned," 2001 painting by Scott Richard. Photo: torabkhopper via Flickr.

According to the annual Global Trends Report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, released on June 19, nearly 70.8 million people worldwide had been displaced as of the end of last year. Add to that approximately 13.6 million individuals displaced so far in 2019. “We are now witnessing the highest level of displaced persons on record,” says the UNHCR, a fact that affects all aspects of modern society and social progress, including the arts. It is our responsibility to be aware and to take action — even as we in the US face another horrifying example of anti-immigrant mass shootings.

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First, we need to know is the terminology:

Migrant: Any person who moves from their home for any variety of reasons. Migrant is an umbrella category that can include everything listed below.

Individual Experiencing Homelessness: Any person who lacks housing or goes without stable shelter. In the US, we often recognize four different types of homelessness: chronic, episodic, transitional and hidden. This term is often used domestically.

Runaway: Any individual who flees or leaves their home of their own accord. In the US, a runaway is specifically a minor reported missing because their whereabouts are unknown to the legal custodian; the circumstances around the individual’s absence indicates voluntarily leaving but without the custodian’s consent and without the intent to return. This term is often used domestically as well.

Forcibly Displaced Person: Someone forced to flee their home due to harassment, threats, abduction, torture, climate change, natural disaster, armed conflict, generalized violence, human rights violations or persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group (e.g., LGBTQIA+).

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Refugee: A forcibly displaced person who has fled their home country and is residing in another country for sanctuary. Refugees cannot apply for resettlement; the UNHCR identifies the most vulnerable cases and determines Refugee Status Determination (RSD). Only then can US-bound refugees be hand-selected by the US government abroad (often in camps), screened by multiple US agencies for up to two years while they reside in a first country of asylum and/or safe third country, be processed from outside the US, and receive approximately $1,850 and three months of resettlement assistance from the government, followed by up to nine years on Medicaid, plus other basic services. The process does not include the choice of country or city where one will resettle. Refugees resettled in the US must apply for legal permanent residency — a green card — one year after arrival.

Asylum Seeker: A forcibly displaced person who has fled their home country and seeks protection from inside another country or at a port of entry but has not yet received any legal recognition or status. In several countries, including the US, asylum seekers can be detained while waiting for their case to be heard. In the US, a person may apply for asylum regardless of their immigration status and within a year of their arrival. There are two types of asylum cases: affirmative and removal. A person granted asylum — an asylee — has access to some public benefits, including the ability to work, but must be in the US for at least one year before applying for legal permanent residency (green card).

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Internally Displaced Person (IDP): A forcibly displaced person who has fled their home but not crossed an international border. IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government — even though that government may be the cause of their flight; the role of the international community is only a complementary one.

Legal Immigrant or Permanent Resident Alien: A person who makes the decision to permanently relocate to another country in order to improve their lives by finding work or education, be with family members, and many other reasons. They must be sponsored by a family member or employee in most cases. In the American system, they may be issued immigrant visas by the Department of State overseas, or they can apply for permanent resident status through the Department of Homeland Security once in the US on a non-immigrant visa. Legal immigrants have limited access to public benefits, typically after five years in the US, when they can also apply for citizenship.

Expatriate (Expat): A person who is temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than their native country. This term is disproportionately used for white people.

Undocumented Immigrant: A person who has entered another country without legal process, or a person who has overstayed their non-immigrant visa after entering legally (on a student, artist, tourist or fiancé visa, as examples) without adjusting their legal status. Undocumented immigrants often pay income taxes for years without access to basic protections, benefits and services.

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Second, we need to recognize, applaud and celebrate the contributions of migrant and refugee artists. Here are just a few.

Carlos Acosta: ballet dancer, Cuban refugee
Aeham Ahmad: musician, Syrian refugee
Mohammed “Mo” Amer: American comedian of Palestinian descent, fled his birth country of Kuwait, now a featured actor on Ramy on Hulu
Reinaldo Arenas: Cuban novelist; became a refugee in the US after years of persecution for his sexuality and political ideas
Elias Canetti: winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature; Bulgarian refugee.
Marc Chagall: Russian-French artist of Belarusian-Jewish origin
Zohra Daoud: actress and model; the first and only Miss Afghanistan; Afghani refugee now living in California
Omid Djalili: Comedian and actor, Iranian refugee
Mona Hatoum: British painter, Palestinian-Lebanese refugee
: Supermodel, fled Somalia with her family
Ahmad Joudeh: Dancer and choreographer, Syrian refugee
Anish Kapoor
: Won the 1991 Turner Prize, son of Iraqi refugees
K’Naan: Hip-hop artist, refugee from Somalia now living in Toronto
Baron Lew Grade: TV/film mogul and producer, Russian refugee
Fritzi Massary: Austrian-Jewish operetta singer, refugee
Rigoberta Menchú Tum: Author, winner of 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, Guatemalan refugee
M.I.A.: Singer/hip-hop artist, part of a Tamil Sri Lankan refugee family
Tanya Sarne: Fashion designer, daughter a Russian refugee
Shingai Shoniwa: Singer, daughter of Zimbabwean refugees
Sir Georg Solti: Conductor, Hungarian-Jewish refugee
Loung Ung: Activist and writer, survivor of the Killing Fields of Cambodia
Alek Wek: Supermodel, fled Sudan with her family
Billy Wilder: Film director and writer, Austrian-Jewish refugee

And in case you didn’t know, Jackie Chan, Jacob Epstein, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Estefan, Victor Hugo, Wyclef Jean, Mila Kunis, Thomas Mann, Bob Marley, Freddie Mercury, Vladimir Nabokov, Olivia Newton-John, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Rita Ora, Arnold Schoenberg, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Gene Simmons, Regina Spektor, Jerry Springer, Tom Stoppard and Georg Ritter von Trapp were all refugees, or the children or grandchildren of refugees.

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Third, we must understand the role of the arts in the resettlement and integration processes. We should reach out to the staff of our local refugee resettlement agencies to advocate for them to add arts careers and entrepreneurship to their refugee employment programs. We should take inspiration from the Toronto Arts Council’s Newcomers and Refugees Mentorship Program and Battery Dance’s refugee integration work. We should reread Americans for the Arts’ 2017 Statement on Immigration and the Arts. We should develop more arts therapy programs for migrants and refugees in transition, more arts initiatives for refugees (including those living in camps for years, cross-status collectives and collaborations), more migrant advocacy and social activism through the arts, and more opportunities for migrant artists to develop and share their work.

Most important — and as I’ve been learning through my own work in this space — it’s vital that we keep the artists central. We need to follow rather than lead migrants and migrant artists, steering away from re-victimization and re-traumatization for our own benefit. As non-migrants, we must allow migrant artists to tell the stories they want to tell, without being obliged to re-share the stories that we need to hear. As Katie Weiner in the Harvard Political Review writes,

But while artists can challenge stereotypes and assumptions about refugees, they can also reflect and perpetuate them. Too often, refugees are treated as passive bystanders in their own lives, and artists who engage without challenging this assumption do a disservice to the refugee communities they intend to represent.

Immigration and the arts: there is much we need to learn, and much we need to do. This is a global crisis, so the arts everywhere have a role. That includes you and me.