What makes a space safe? How would you define refuge? / by Jess Linton


It is hard to believe that just three weeks ago we were working with groups in Kathmandu offering training around defining refuge & safe spaces through sensitive art-making. This work included exploring: what it means to be a refugee in Nepal, and issues of displacement; the role that art-making can play in creating safe psychological spaces for children; the meaning of the word ‘refuge’; ‘trauma’, coping and resilience and listening skills. We walked and worked around the city exploring ‘safe spaces’ and defining refuge firsthand. We chose a space to claim as our own for an afternoon and made our very own refuge within it, from all the found objects we had collected along the way and in the space. We took some time to sit together in the space that the group had built and thought about what they had felt they needed to make their refuge and safe space: what felt like essential building blocks/ basic needs?; could they manage to meet all of our needs?; could they bring other parts in that were more for decoration or comfort?; what roles did they find themselves taking on?; how was it feeling displaced and then finding ways to claim a space in an unknown place?; were they able to learn anything new about their relationship to their city?; had they discovered anything new about what they need to feel safe?

We held an art therapeutic programme for refugee children and young people at Nepal Children’s Art Museum which invited them on the last day to build their own island in groups. My group of 12-18 year olds created a majestic island of towering mountains, crystal blue sea and a river estuary bringing water source directly to two forests standing tall, surrounded by bright flowers. Except for a handsome ship sailing far out in the sea there wasn’t a human in site. 

Given that these young people had found themselves in Nepal seeking sanctuary from persecution, conflict and violence - manmade disaster - it didn’t come as a surprise that this island offered an escape from the immense dangers they had seen caused my man. We discussed this together as we sat on and around our island, the group feeling at peace and finally in control of their young but eventful lives. 

 But last Saturday when the earthquake hit us over here in Nepal the river took on a new meaning for me, as if a forceful crack splitting the island in two. The sanctuary that we had all found in the natural world was turned on its head and we are trying to understand what safe spaces and refuge really means all over again.

On Saturday, 25th April, an earthquake which registered as 7.8 magnitude hit Nepal. The devastation is huge and relentless. We have been experiencing aftershocks as relentless since. It is taking many large and small scale organisations, local and international volunteers to start to work tirelessly to rebuild the Nepal we know and love. The main regions that have been affected beyond the capital itself Kathmandu are many villages in the surrounding area, the Ghurkka region, Sindhu Palchok, the Langtang region. The body count is now reaching over 6,000 and whether on international news or friend’s photos on Facebook we are seeing a stream of harrowing images of bodies amidst the rubble, houses and whole villages completely abolished and adding to Nepal’s already famous dust streets. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their homes and find themselves displaced, their lives changing in split seconds. Thousands are yet to be accounted for, and if or when they are 90% of schools and clinics in some districts have been completely obliterated.

For Nepali New Year I was in Bhaktaphur. I fell in love with the place as soon as we jumped off the bus and into the joyful ancient streets of this protected heritage site. We walked from 'pati' to 'pati' (sheltered seating areas) in the squares and by the temples playing games of Bhaag Chaal and eating ice cream and juju dhau curd along with every other grinning individual celebrating there, most of whom were local Nepalis. We met up with the previous artist in residence from CAM, Emily, and had New Year’s lunch with the beautiful family that she had been staying with. We squeezed into the narrow alleyway, through the sloping door that had surely been there standing proud in its role for centuries, up their rickety stairs, on to the makeshift sitting room floor to sit slightly askew as we ate the most amazing and never-ending meal. The warmth, generosity and positive energy of everyone in that house, young and old, was incredible and inspiring. I haven’t quite managed to ask how that family are as yet.

I was one of the extremely lucky ones, having strangely chosen to have two weeks away from the city when the earthquake hit. We have felt the same tremors but have not seen anything like the destruction that others have had to endure. I was making my way down from a 6-day trek up to Mardi Himal base camp, climbing down from a height of over 4,500 metres. We had reached the small village of Lumre between Sidding and Pokhara and were tucking in to our staple meal, Dhal Bhaat, when we realized that the deep insistent bass that we heard, felt, almost saw and smelt, wasn’t from a local truck or Nepali sound system. We were told to get on to the street and we craned our necks with the locals to see what we could see; what might fall first?; which corrugated iron roof or power line looked most deadly?; which houses and buildings looked less secure? We saw the hole where a door had falled in to its house, neighbours told us of large cracks in their homes, or fears of even worse up in the villages and roads further up the mountains. But that was all we saw. We caught a Nepali-eventful bus back to Pokhara but nothing more, no other signs of the disaster. Things began to become clearer when I got talking to an army officer on the bus and my friends from Berlin received a text asking how they were.

Over the next couple of days in Pokhara we felt so fortunate, guilty even, for being in such a bubble away from the worst. But people were definitely living in fear, especially with news reaching us of the immensity of the disaster. We've rarely seen an official, a policeman or army officer, giving advice here and I hope this isn’t the same for Kathmandu and other affected areas. Locals have been doing their best to think of what to do next, talking things through with neighbours, offering provisions or helping to track people down. It has been so incredible seeing everyone, locals and foreigners jumping in to action.

Initially locals were camping out on parks or outside the fronts of their houses, which doesn’t feel much safer but they have been keen to set us up to do the same. I have shared the curb outside our guesthouse and the floor of their garden hut with people in similar situations to me, and valued their company and good spirits! Sometimes we feel the aftershocks together, other times the tremors feel so in-built that we ask eachother “do you feel this one?” and conclude that it was nothing more than in our brains or shaky legs! When the largest aftershock came on Sunday I was caught out and was in the shower. I thought someone was knocking for me before I realized that my door was being pushed in to the room despite being locked. I spent some time on the street in nothing more than a blanket from the bed! But it felt good to be able to joke and laugh and try and make light of a traumatizing situation for the locals who might still have friends and family to account for. As I followed my wet feet marks back upstairs I thought about ‘Don’t Shoot the Clowns’, British lawyer Jo Wilding and her brilliant circus group in Iraq, and the importance of finding humor and strong spirits to push through challenging times. And I felt my first urge to get back to Kathmandu to support through my art therapeutic work.

This firsthand experience of displacement has really resonated with me given the work that I have been doing over the past few years. For all the times I have thought about the refugee experience and the exercise ‘what object would you take with you?’ the reality is an eye opener. I have realized that I quickly became hyper vigilant and alert, to sounds in particular. I had put systems in place to be ready for any further events without really realizing I was doing it: My ‘one object that I would take with me’ became a full on bag; I walk around with my portable home at all times. Friends and family would argue that this was nothing new but now beyond art materials and snacks I remember a few even more random extras; candles, first aid kit and water purifying tablets; passport, cash, food snacks, maybe a game or two too; I charge my phone at any available moment; I shower as normal but found myself keeping the fan off and the bathroom door open; I ditched any extra beauty activities beyond a face wash and some sun cream a long time ago, to get back outside with friends as soon as possible (but I have been working hard towards this personal goal for a while anyway so thank you mother earth!); my main bag remained packed and ready to go; my door which doesn’t lock properly now felt safer that way for a faster escape anyway!

But given we have been so lucky here of course my main thoughts are with those who are struggling and will continue to struggle for a long while yet. It will feel better being nearer some of those friends again soon and able to build a clearer picture. I found it hard enough to get online to write these posts as it was. Now the times when signal and power come together seamlessly are even fewer and far between. Friends in Kathmandu have managed to post pleas for help in topping up mobile phones via Facebook but they still find that networks are busy or power to charge phones is out, so as hard as people are working in the efforts to get out there and support those in need, the context couldn’t be more challenging. I have saved some posts and images from friends from over the past few days but will spare you from them. But whilst we known that the lense that the we see news of disasters through in the media can be narrow and intense please do keep in touch and step in to help where you can. Monsoon hits in July and no doubt brings with it yet more terrifying waves of destruction for the half standing homes and the streets already spewing out heavy and sharp debris at its people.

I will be back in Kathmandu soon to make a start on re-establishing our safe spaces for children and families affected by the earthquake. Firstly starting with rebuilding those internal, inner most spaces within us all that we can surely hope to have control of in this strange, unpredictable world.


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