River runs through

A profoundly-moving fabric and glass installation tackles migration, memory and loss. Review by Stephen Iliffe.  OMHiRes1and2.JPEGHI.jpg

“I weave these elaborate textiles,” smiles Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings, “only to watch Mike dissolve them between two layers of hot molten glass until there’s hardly a trace of my work left to see!

Her collaborator Mike Barrett nods: “We call these ‘flying carpet sandwiches’” he laughs. “I heat the glass to 1100 Centigrade and watch Omeima’s handiwork disintegrate into flames.”

So, delicate cottons meet white-hot liquid glass. Why’s that? The answer lies in Omeima’s childhood memories.

Unexpected twists and turns

“I was born hearing but went deaf aged four,” says Omeima. “I grew up by the River Nile in Khartoum, Sudan and then the middle east. I went to school in England. My family has Arabic roots but I’m British too. It’s been a very, very long journey to find myself. Like a river with unexpected twists and turns…”

The latest twist brings us to Brighton’s Fabrica where Omeima and Mike are staging a joint installation. As I walk into the converted-church arts venue, the initial impact of River Runs Through is sensuous yet mysterious.

Gentle Arabic music tints the atmosphere – violin and flute. A looped video projection of the River Nile flickers on the walls. And then three exhibits – linked by multi-coloured fibre-glass strings that rise and fall like the cables on a suspension bridge.

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As with all good audio-visual installations, one first has to stop, listen and stare. It tickles your curiosity but doesn’t instantly offer its secrets on plate.

A little context helps: The first exhibit (below left) by Omeima turns out to be a laminated panel that seals multiple layers of opaque and transparent fabrics. A rich fusion of east-west colours and textures. The warm violets and earthy browns of her Sudanese childhood, the cooler shades of England’s south coast. Under soft light falling from the Victorian church’s skylights, Islam’s embossed golden crescent shines out. “I’m deaf, a woman, British, a Muslim,” explains Omeima. “All these different identities link together here.”

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Beneath this panel, another fabric (below) flows like river of liquid blues and greens, encrusted in foam-specked greys. The Nile, as it were, tumbling to the wooden floorboards, decked with fishing lines and weights.

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The second exhibit (below) is a rectangular grid of Mike’s glass tiles. As I walk around it, the tiles dance and shimmer with Omeima’s delicate brushstrokes as she experimented with pigments and dyes worked onto the glass in various states of cooling back to its solid state.

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For such a bald exhibit, Omeima’s story gives it a powerful emotional undercurrent. It echoes her Sudanese pilgrimage last year as part of research and development for the project.  “When I arrived, the old Khartoum seemed to have disappeared. I couldn’t recognise it… New roads, new buildings. Favourite places seemed to have disappeared. Everything’s moved, there’s roads everywhere. New junctions, new bridges.

“But when I was on the boat on the Nile, that’s still the same…  Lots of people walking past the river. Families, friends, neighbours, picnics… The most massive orange sunset on the water which feels so close, that’s the same. It’s a very powerful thing to know that has not changed. The tiles celebrate Nile as an eternal presence, a permanent life force”

“After your return from Khartoum, we began talking about what you’ve learned from your travels,” says Mike to Omeima during a Q&A session hosted by Fabrica’s director Liz Whitehead. “We discussed how we could feed all this into our fabric n’ glass mash ups”.

Destroy and create

The third exhibit is perhaps the most ground-breaking one. If Mike is destroyer to Omeima’s creator, the effect is sublime. As the glass slowly cools, Mike deftly shapes it into surging waves that melt the fabrics into inky blotches of sky blue, indigo, crimsons, sandy browns. Or colours evaporate leaving barely perceptible imprints – like a fossil of a sea anemone with only a shape or texture to indicate where it used to exist.

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The result is an utterly gorgeous series of wave-like slabs of glass (above) that ooze with subtle inky colours. The glass still and frozen, yet full of movement – roaring and twisting currents. I could almost ‘hear’ the Nile, almost place my hand inside and feel the water through my fingers.

Throughout the project, Mike plays a vital and empathetic role in uncorking Omeima’s emotions: “Glass was the right material,” he says, “because it reflects and mimics the quality of water. And when it traps the fabrics within it, it also captures Omeima’s memories too.”

Sweeping up the ashes

“We had to experiment a lot,” says Omeima, “and try out different temperatures and materials and processes. There was a lot of trial and error. But the wonderful thing about the hot glass is how the fabric catches fire and when we swept up the ashes, they made me feel as if I was wiping away old Khartoum. It had disappeared but still left traces behind in my memories.”

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As with any installation, how much you get out of it, as a visitor, is proportionate to how much you put in. I noticed a few puzzled-looking folk ambling in off the local shopping street and 15 seconds later heading for the exit. But mostly, people lingered to savour the experience, ask Omeima and Mike questions, take mobile shots.

I enjoyed my hour walking around the exhibits. Seeing how the colours and reflections changed as the sun played hide and seek with the clouds outside. In the same way that a river’s surface appearance is continually evolving with the ambient weather.

Like all great artworks, the power of River Runs Through is both specific and universal. Yes, it tells Omeima’s story, but it’s also a river that runs through our own lives too: the past and present: the river of time, of memory, migration and loss. A process of transforming that loss into something new and unique. Something lost, something gained. We can all relate to that.

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Ultimately, Omeima and Mike have created something special here. As Liz Whitehead (below left) reflects: “When artists work alone, they have a singular vision. ‘I know what I want and how to achieve it’. When two artists combine, each has to be open to new processes, new outputs, to experiment, make mistakes, accept chance elements and intermittent failures on the road to success.”

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In doing so, the best artist collaborations (be it Lennon/McCartney or whoever) alchemise something unique that neither artist on their own could realise. And that is the extraordinary achievement of River Runs Through.

Long may this river flow…

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All text and photographs by Stephen Iliffe (except third image by Mike Barrett).

For further details, visit www.omeima.arts.com and www.mikebarrettglass.com

 

Two logos FINAL

Instagram – reality or illusion?

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Is Instagram a reality or an illusion? Does it feed or kill human creativity? Harmless pastime or serious addiction?

Three urgent questions tackled by art photographers Natalie Christensen and Jim Eyre in their first joint exhibition alteredstates/alteredscapes.

Like many of us in the 21st century, Natalie (above left) and Jim (right) – who live 5,000 miles apart in New Mexico, USA and London, UK – initially made contact via social media. Both share a fascination with street scenes reduced to starkly beautiful abstractions of shape, line, colour and light.

From there, Instagram’s algorithms for matching ‘users’ with like-minded profiles, hashtags, followers and – you know the score – connected the dots.

Over time, the pair began to swop messages in cyberspace;  likes, comments and ideas for collaborating together.

For alteredstates/alteredscapes – Natalie and Jim selected elements of each other’s work and collaged them into single images.

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The above example blends Natalie’s fascination at faded 1950s Americana with Jim’s love for the nondescript corners of Lewisham. A empty swimming pool, deliciously pink concrete, a sun lounger. An unruly burst of weeds, a road cone and steps leading to nowhere. An ominous shadow cast by an object outside the picture frame.

Despite its superficially banal content, there’s a hidden psychodrama at play here – poised between nothing’s-going-on and something-dramatic-lies-around-the-corner. As if blending Jim’s original training as an architect with Natalie’s part-time day job as a psychotherapist.

During the exhibition’s Q&A session, I speculated which individual elements in the image came from New Mexico or London? Half of my guesses were wrong. Which just goes to show how playfully Natalie and Jim tease our senses, challenge our assumptions about what’s what?

The image can be read on so many levels and it’s available to view in cyberspace 24/7 wherever you are in the world – by logging into Instagram, of course. That oft-maligned platform where people show off their haircuts, cleavages, ice creams, while advertisers prospect for your likes.

“Yeah, I admit, Instagram is… let’s use that word… an addiction”, confesses Natalie, with a knowing smile. “But Jim and I want to use it, not abuse it. We’re asking questions about what is real and what isn’t. It’s kinda surreal to be collaborating from half way across the world via mobile phones and laptops, so that naturally leads to surreal images too.”

“Sometimes people may think we’re cheating when we Photoshop stuff,” adds Jim. “But we’re challenging people to think about what we see, who we engage with. And,  Instagram is a just app. Is any of it real anyway?”

As with any philosophical line of enquiry, some dilemmas arise: “Do Natalie and I stay true to our original intention – to share and create meaningful art?” quips Jim. “Or do we allow it to get interrupted by a never-ending dopamine rush in the quest for the most “likes”?

In this context, it was inspiring to see Natalie and Jim’s Instagram work occupy a public space at Peckham Levels – a new arts, shopping and eating venue hosted in a former multi-story car park.

I loved how the architectural content of their floor-to-ceiling-sized prints merged seamlessly into the building’s own structures of concrete walls, walkways and ramps.

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As shoppers and families strolled past (including those who’d never normally set foot inside an art gallery), I was struck how often they’d pause to take a closer look, and occasionally take selfies in front of them. Who knows, maybe some of these ended up on Instagram too?

During a photowalk after the Q&A, I decided to have a little fun with this myself and took a few candid shots with passersby blending into the images (above). Art into life into art, as it were.

For me, a key lesson from altered states/alteredscapes is that Natalie and Jim are showing it is possible to strike a balance, to be artful and well-liked too (Natalie has 33,000+ Instagram followers). To inhabit cyberspace while physically interacting with people. And that’s a humanising message for all of us art photographers and Instagrammers alike.

Natalie Christensen at nataliechristensenphoto.com

Jim Eyre at germaine.co.uk 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes from the Bird Cage

Stephen Iliffe reviews Echoes from the Bird Cage, Evelyn Glennie – Platform Theatre, Kings Cross 

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For most, London’s Kings Cross station is a brief stop on the way to somewhere else. Trains and commuters enter and exit as if in a manic 24-hour time lapse film.

Yet across five square miles, the wider Kings Cross district is a rich tapestry of the old industrial revolutions and postmodernist architecture. And, if you have time to wander the side streets, piazzas, gardens, canal towpath, to stop and stare, you’ll discover hidden oases of calm, a soul, even.

As a street photographer, I’ve documented the area for many years (selected images  appear here).

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So, I was intrigued to hear that composer and jazz pianist Jill Jarman also intuits this soul. The result is Echoes from The Bird Cage. A six-part impression of Kings Cross that aims to capture – as Jill writes in her programme notes – energy, colour, light and sound, dancing up and around a vertical landscape, relentless movement, combined with quiet and beautiful spaces.

To add to my delight, Echoes is a collaboration with a long-time heroine of mine, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Over three decades, I’ve followed Evelyn’s journey from  orchestras, drums and xylophone to the wilder shores of free improv – beating, brushing, scraping sounds from household or junkyard objects.

And better still, Echoes got its world premiere at the Platform Theatre, ten minutes’ walk from the back of the station.

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As the spotlight falls on the stage, the eye is drawn to Evelyn’s landscape of percussive instruments and found objects. After a lingering silence, Evelyn appears, slowly walking around the instruments, ear cocked to each one. As if in the act of listening to the Kings Cross streets and their ambient sounds. For Evelyn, active listening has always been a crucial element of her composition and improvisation process.

The music begins softly as The Spaces In-Between evokes pre-dawn stillness. Evelyn’s humming waterphones and brushed gongs reverberate softly until Jill makes her entrance, along with cellist Brian O’Kane, and we’re led into gentle strings and jazzy piano strokes. The city is slowly awakening.

As if on schedule, the tick-tocking rhythms of In Motion steadily up the ante before erupting into a commuter rush of hyperactive drums, horns and strings.

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One is struck by how familiar instruments are making unfamiliar sounds. Outside The Box is an almost gamelan-like percussive workout; Evelyn picks out a bass clarinet and (without blowing into the mouthpiece) taps the keys with her palms to create bracing non-standard rhythms. These are echoed by Jill who nips over to the back of her grand piano to strum and then tap the strings – John Cage-style – with mallets. Brian drops his bow to ambidextrously explore the Cello strings, while Paul Booth on clarinet and Ian East on tenor sax likewise contribute to the polyrhythmic speed rush.

Walk the Kings Cross side streets, the crowds soon disappear and the roar fades to an ambient hum that intermingles machine, man, nature. Likewise, Echoes From The Bird Cage starts as an abstracted tone poem of sounds bouncing to and fro off buildings at different times of day. Gradually the intensity climbs as the individual contributions of the ensemble players overlay each other into mesmeric patterns, until we slow fade back into silence.

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The world music-infused Global Chant is a 360-degree experience; marbles rattled in steel pans, a clarinet and flute play from within the audience, eastern sounds and modes drift around our heads like exotic perfume. The ensemble breaks out into chants and handclaps.  Kings Cross has been enriched by waves of immigration from Europe, Africa and Asia. The mood is joyous and celebratory.

Finally, the haunting Echoes Past nods backwards via a series of fleeting vignettes that evoke heavy industries, disease, world wars, poverty, debauchery.

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For all the visual associations I’ve cited here, Echoes From The Bird Cage isn’t simply picture music. It sets out the physical and emotional terrain of Kings Cross while allowing space for listeners to insert their imaginations into the weft and weave of the music.

During the post-show Q&A, Evelyn clarified that Echoes is a work-in-progress. It will evolve over future performances until, hopefully, getting a wider CD release. This makes sense due to the evolutionary dynamic at the heart of Jill’s and Evelyn’s collaboration. Evelyn respectfully working within the composer’s tightly structured score, Jill allowing space for Evelyn’s wild card improvisations.

KXXXmasterThis aligns perfectly with the ever-changing topography of Kings Cross – a pragmatic trade-off between the infrastructural visions of city and transport planners on one side and quixotic movements of commuters, workers and residents on the other.

In 2018, new questions arise: Kings Cross seems set for another new phase; aspiring to be London’s new creative quarter. Kaleidoscopic, dynamic, emotive. Echoes From The Bird Cage is a bold and beautiful anthem for that future.

All text and images by Stephen Iliffe. Except, concert photo © Martin Collins.  

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The Unheard World

Stephen Iliffe reviews Audiovisability’s stunning project to pull centuries-old classical music norms into new 21st century shapes.   

Some cynics say classical music is little more than a museum for dead composers, that it has exhausted its capacity for new ideas.

Refusing this stereotype are Audiovisability’s British Syrian composer Waseem Kotoub and flautist Ruth Montgomery. Their latest project The Unheard World tackles urgent middle east themes – home, displacement and migration – as war continues to tear traditional societies apart.

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The initial concept was premiered last August at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival with Waseem’s Stories of Syria for solo piano. Performed at Stockbridge Church (above), the vaulted roof filled with swelling chords that blend sweet nostalgia with terrorism’s dark shadows.

Waseem’s skill lies in marshalling a huge dynamic range; he can playfully reel off mid-tempo folk dances; or pummel the keys into a maelstrom of dense harmonics; or brush them with the lightness of a dragonfly on the breeze.

Across five movements – Dawn, Dance, Pain, Hope, Damascus Rose – Waseem unfurls a psychological profile of his homeland, a tightrope-tension between innocence and fear, sorrow and hope for a better future. It was mesmerising 20-minute performance that left me wanting more.

And there was more to come: At the close, Waseem shared news of his commission by Audiovisability to rewrite Stories of Syria for a chamber ensemble. The result to be performed with synchronised live action painting, sign language and captions.

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This was an intriguing prospect: Audiovisability is the brainchild of deaf flautist Ruth Montgomery (above). An ‘audio visual’ collective whose latest iteration blends Arabic and British cultures into dazzling multimedia events.

Four months later, 400 miles south, I’m at Brighton’s Fabrica to join a sell-out audience to see Stories of Syria emerge butterfly-like from its chrysalis.

To begin with, Dawn’s taut weave of dreamy folk nostalgia and sublimated war marches gains added dynamic from the interplay of Ruth’s melodic flute runs and a colouristic string section of violin (Thomas Leate), viola (Helen Sanders-Hewett) and cello (James Greenfield). The Arab-west fusion comes alive with Rihab Azar’s oud (an eastern version of the lute) and Jamal Al-Sakka’s supple percussives on Mazhar (frame drum) and Riq (similar to a tambourine).

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Another innovation: live captions on a big screen (above) track the music’s evolving themes and moods. ‘Unstable’ – ‘Remember peace?’ – ‘A sudden unexpected shift’ – ‘Thick tension’. It’s a pleasing touch, like whispered asides to the audience. Additional cues flag up the ensemble’s techniques: ‘The flute returns to the original melody’ – ‘The oud reminds us of the march’. Scripted by Eloise Garland, the balance was spot on; not fussily detailed or overly prescriptive, empowering the audience to insert their own imaginations into the music.

Pushing the envelope further: on a slightly-raised stage just behind the ensemble, stands artist Rachel Gadsden with buckets of acrylic paint and five blank canvases – one for each movement.

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As Rachel’s paintings (above) evolve in real time to the music , they mind-map Stories of Syria’s physical and emotional impact. Using an abstract expressionist palette of daubed whites, splashed crimsons, bleeding turquoise. Applied with brushes and sticks or by fingertips, knuckles and palms. Improvised strokes that might evoke a throbbing heart or delicate flower, a torn limb or spilt wine.

It’s a perfect marriage with Waseem’s music which itself is never simply ‘picture music’ but takes us on a psychic journey from trauma to hope.

In the west, we’re often guilty of holding a two-dimensional view of Syria – framed by 24/7 media images of Kalashnikov-waving terrorists and concrete ruins. The 2nd movement ‘Dance’ reminds us it was not always so. Adapting the classical Rondo form (= ‘circle’), it nods to the Syrian Dabkeh tradition of dancing in circles). There’s a communal spirit as the ensemble plays in unison while allowing generous space for each individual musician to take turns in driving the melody forwards. A one-for-all, all-for-one Syria before factional divide-and-rule tore it apart.

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Audiovisability throws us another gambit: deaf actress Nadia Nadarajah (above with James Greenfield on cello) steps up to unfurl her British Sign Language (BSL) and ‘conduct’ and ‘interpret’ the music, using a deft mix of BSL storytelling and improvised gestures that signal the music’s repetition, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and metre.

This is something of a ‘research and development’ technique that has huge potential. As an experienced actress, Nadia is supersensitive to the role of facial expression and body language in theatre. Far from being just an interpreter, she dramatises Stories of Syria’s narrative and brings an added pulse to the music too.

As ‘Dance’ ends, an eerie silence falls. Then, one of the evening’s key moments;  James’ cello opens ‘Pain’ with a long-held cathartic moan, wringing every drop of emotion from his bow. A caption evokes ‘Mothers who have lost their children’. Rachel drags crimson-streaked fingers down the canvas, like a prisoner in solitary confinement gripping the cell walls. Nadia’s existential body language connects to all of us whatever language we speak or sign.

It’s a harrowing moment that stops the audience in its collective tracks – musicians, artist, BSL signer, captions, audience, all fused together in a universal cry of pain.

Over the next three minutes, ‘Pain’ leads us on a slow, hypnotic funereal march through a limbo of mourning strings and heartbeat rhythms from Helen’s plucked viola and Jamal’s gently finger-tapped heartbeat rhythms. During this passage, I recall the poet John Donne’s famous line on hearing a funeral bell: ‘Ask not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’, reminding us that all of us in the west are diminished by this war and the suffering it causes.

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The tempo gathers once more with the 4th movement’s tentatively upbeat ‘Hope’ until Rihab’s solo tango (above) for oud introduces ‘Damascus Rose’. As Ruth’s flute takes its cue from a famous Syrian folk tune, to evoke a flower’s petals opening to a brighter future, James’s cello interjects a note of caution, reminding us that for many Syrians ‘home’ is a place of love and pride with an underlying sorrow that never entirely leaves.

After the interval, the ensemble returns to tackle a second theme – ‘migration’. In the three-movement ‘Belonging’, Waseem alludes to the life story of deaf textile artist Omeima Mudawi-Rowlings. It’s a sublime evocation; Omeima’s Sudanese-Arabic childhood beside the river Nile, her sudden deafness aged four by meningitis, and subsequent migration to deaf school in London.

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In the aisle, three of Omeima’s translucent textile panels (above) hang on display, backlit with spotlights until they glow like African sunshine in Brighton’s wintry darkness.  One could pass a whole evening scanning the details. Each panel a micro-world in itself. Intricate patterns and lines resemble Arabic script or audiogram charts, musical notation or childhood memories. A visual narrative that amplifies Waseem’s music (and vice versa).

In another technological twist, the accompanying photography and textile exhibition enabled visitors to use Signly’s new mobile phone app to display on-screen BSL translations of the exhibit captions.

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The Unheard World ends on a third theme – displacement – reminding us of the ongoing cost of Syrian war; the trauma experienced by over three million of asylum seekers and refugees. This is bought to vivid life by a video short by deaf film-maker Ramon Woolfe of his 11-year old daughter Layla’s BSL poem – soundtracked by Rihab’s plaintive oud solo. Through her native sign language, Layla’s gives a voice to the dreams of a six-year old deaf asylum seeker Lawand Hamadamin. He’s currently safe and being temporarily schooled at Derby’s Royal School for the Deaf. Yet his family still await a high court judgement on their application to remain in the UK.

From an audio-visual perspective, The Unheard World is a lot to take in. Yet it consistently hits the spot for me, and judging by the rapturous applause, for the wider audience too (a mixture of Brighton’s general public and deaf community members). With thoughtful staging, Audiovisability empowers us to enjoy music on different levels. You can choose as and when to switch focus between musicians, painting, captions or BSL, each a standalone element while adding value to the overall performance.

Ask a random stranger in the street about “classical music” or “music and deaf people” and you’ll likely get some fumbling response about “posh music” and “shame that some can’t hear music”. Audiovisability not only challenges these tired assumptions, it alchemises a whole new way of enjoying music.

This project is surely only just beginning and deserves a far wider audience.


The Unheard World is funded by Arts Council England, Arab British Centre and Decibels / Sobell Foundation 

All text and photographs by Stephen Iliffe. Except top image by Tim Gadsen. 

 

Giving deaf refugees a voice

Everyone has an opinion about refugees.

But what about refugees themselves? Shouldn’t they have a voice too?  What of their experiences, hopes and fears?

This week, Audiovisability releases The Unheard World – a unique British Sign Language (BSL) video about six-year-old deaf asylum seeker Lawand Hamadamin.

It features a heart-wrenching poem by 11-year old British deaf girl Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe of Lawand’s traumatic journey from Iraq to the infamous Dunkirk refugee camp in France.

After six weeks in makeshift tents and waterlogged fields with only scraps of food to live on, Lawand and his family were rescued by Deaf Kidz International volunteers and bought into the UK.

Lawand now lives temporarily in Derby, so he can attend the Royal School for Deaf Children and – crucially – acquire the language skills he desperately needs to express himself. By finding a new home in Derby’s deaf community, Lawand has made dramatic progress.

However, the family’s relief didn’t last long: the Hamadamins were given blunt notice by the Home Office that they are to be deported to Germany.

The decision makes no human sense: Lawand’s education would go back to square one. German and German Sign Language are completely different to English and British Sign Language (BSL). At a stroke, a year’s progress would be wiped out.

At the eleventh hour, a judge suspended Lawand’s deportation until the High Court considers their case to remain.

Last summer, Lawand was befriended by Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe who spent a day conversing with him in BSL about his experiences. The result is unique: a British deaf child using BSL poetry to give a voice to an Iraqi deaf child. Telling his story, as he told it to her.

The video soundtrack was composed by deaf flautist Ruth Montgomery who uses minor keys and Arabic tones to express the BSL rhythms and to capture the story’s evolving moods. The music is performed by Syrian oud player, Rihab Azar.

To complete a deaf-led project, Stephen Iliffe’s photographs form a subtle backdrop to Layla’s sign language.

Do share the video, and also encourage your friends to sign the 38 Degrees petition that calls on the authorities to grant Lawand and his family permission to remain in the UK.

Thank you!

 

I have a dream…

“Hey, I’m Spiderman!”

Six-year-old Lawand climbs his bedroom walls.

Because, in their dreams, deaf children can do anything – except hear perfectly. 

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As an asylum seeker, Lawand Hamadamin dreams of a future here in Derby – 3,230 miles from his birthplace in Chwarqurna, northern Iraq.

For 18 months ago, his family fled overnight from war-torn Iraq to seek safety here, with just passports and the clothes on their back.

As a reporter for the Audiovisability project, I meet the Hamadamins in temporary accommodation in a Derby backstreet. Naked light bulbs, bare walls, mattresses on the floor. But it’s home. For now.

Polite, smiling yet nervous, father Rebwar (35) and mother Golbahar (33) offer me a traditional welcome – a tray of black tea and baklava pastries. As we sit cross-legged on the floor, I promise the boys – Lawand (6) and brother Rawa (7) – that once I’ve finished interviewing their parents, we’ll play football in a local park. They agree, grab some toys, gifted by local volunteers, and race upstairs.

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Rebwar stresses that refugees are ordinary people like you and me.

“Trust me,” he says. “No-one easily leaves their country, culture and language. My family lived in Chwarqurna for six generations. I had a tile fitting business. We had our own house, a car. We’d take the boys on day trips to the mountains (above). We were happy there.”

But then their lives were turned upside-down by the war. United Nations (UN) began to file reports of genocide, slavery, rape: “Just imagine,” says Rebwar, “no longer feeling safe in your own home. At nights, I’d hear a bang or noise and wonder what was about to happen? When I saw my kids asleep in their beds, I knew for their sakes that we had to leave.”

The Hamadamins made a dangerous trek through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Germany – arriving at France’s infamous Dunkirk refugee camp (below).

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In Dunkirk, the Hamadamins swapped one hell for another: “Conditions were so bad you would not leave your dog there,” says Rebwar.

“Floods, disease, rats. It was bad enough for adults, imagine how frightening for kids. And all this when Lawand should have been starting school.”

“We had to wrap Lawand’s cochlear implant in a plastic bag to stop water getting inside,” adds Rebwar. “Then it ran out of batteries and later broke. It was so hard for me to communicate to Lawand why he wasn’t at home doing the normal things.”

Amid outbreaks of police brutality and typhoid disease, the Hamadamins were dramatically rescued by volunteers who bundled them to safety in the back of a lorry heading towards England.

Once safely in England, the family was put in contact with Deaf Kidz International who facilitated Lawand’s enrolment at Derby’s Royal School for Deaf Children. It was his first sustained exposure to sign language. He took to it like a fish to water.

“When Lawand arrived at school, he had no means of communicating with anyone, even his own family,” headteacher Helen Shepherd told the Daily Mail. “He’s now making exceptional progress here. He is signing incredibly well and has made good friends. He has grown physically and in confidence.”

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“It’s my dream that when I’m older, I can play for my deaf school’s football team” says Lawand.

The family’s relief didn’t last long: the Hamadamins were given blunt notice by the British government’s Home Office that they are to be deported back to Germany.

The decision makes no human sense: Lawand’s education would go back to square one. German and German Sign Language are completely different to English and British Sign Language. At a stroke, a year’s progress would be wiped out.

There was an immediate public outcry with media headlines. A 38 Degrees petition gained over 12,000 signatures. At the 11th hour, a solicitor forced the Home Office to delay proceedings until a High Court judge considers their case.

“I fully understand that some British people feel asylum seekers have no place here,” says Rebwar. “Yet so many people have been welcoming to us too.”

That some feel the Hamadamins don’t belong here is illustrated in graphic terms in the comments thread below the Daily Mail article:

“Being deported to Germany is now a “devastating blow”? Really?”

 ‘I bet the kids getting all the benefits! They are living like kings!’

‘Hopefully the deaf boy didn’t hear the 11th hour reprieve and left for the airport……’

The online trolls are misinformed. Rebwar despairs: “If we return to Germany, the same thing could happen there too. Using the same EU rules, they might simply deport us back to Greece. Another country, another language, another education system. Every time, we get moved on, Lawand would suffer from the lack of continuity in our lives.”

And, contrary to popular myth, government benefits for refugees are modest: “Just £5 per person per day” says Rebwar. “I have to juggle food and transport costs within that. When you have a child with special needs, there are additional costs. We are deeply grateful to the support of the British Red Cross with donating things like toiletries. But if we go past an ice cream van and the boys ask, we simply can’t afford it.”

Home Office rules prevent asylum seekers from paid employment until their leave to remain is granted, so the family has no other means of supporting itself.

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Why should Britain take Iraqi refugees?

Let’s rewind back to 2003, and the US-British invasion of Iraq. An Iraqi regime that had no “weapons of mass destruction” to threaten us was toppled by our armed forces with little thought to the longer-term consequences.

Arrogant US-British officials then installed puppet rulers who were predictably unable to govern Iraq. This unleashed a chain reaction that would eventually lead to extremists filling the political vacuum. Ten of thousands died, more than 3 million driven from their homes.

As The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins argues: “Britain broke Iraq. We can’t turn our back on its refugees.

“The reason given for the invasion was ‘humanitarian’,” says Jenkins. “Given the lack of military threat, humanity was all there was. Now humanity comes knocking on Britain’s door. It is hypocrisy for a British government to say “we declared war on your country for the sake of your humanity. Don’t come to our shores because we screwed up”.”

Yet still the Home Office shrugs its shoulders. EU rules state asylum be sought in the country of first refuge. For Iraqi refugees, this puts Turkey, Greece and Italy in the frontline – with Britain on the far side of the European continent. This is unfair and unenforceable. Turkey, Greece and Italy never went to war with Iraq yet they absorb by far the greater number of refugees.

Take a closer look at the statistics: Only 0.24% of the UK population are refugees, asylum seekers or stateless people – that is 168,978 people, around the same size as the population of Rochdale in Lancashire.

This is just a fraction of the 749,309 refugees and asylum seekers that Germany has taken in. British Red Cross confirms that roughly just 3% of asylum applications in Europe were lodged in the UK.

For Lawand’s sake, we can’t let him become just another statistic, a political football to be kicked around Europe?

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A last chance for Lawand?

Ever since birth, Lawand had the odds stacked against him. In the Middle East, deaf children outside the major cities are often abandoned to their fate – a life without school or work – by families and officials lacking in positive adult role models for what deaf people can really achieve, if given support.

Lawand was already one before his deafness was identified: “I had my suspicions” says Rebwar (above, right). “While other children chattered away, Lawand had just two words, “Mum” and “Dad”.”

Nine out of ten deaf children are born into families with no prior experience of childhood deafness. All over the world, when parents are told their new born child is  deaf, the response is universal: “I was devastated,” says Rebwar. “I felt helpless.”

Yet Rebwar, a humble tile fitter, refused to accept the status quo. There are no audiologists in Chwarqurna. A two hour-drive to Erbil resulted in a hearing test that confirmed his deafness, but no hearing aids. So Rebwar dug deep into his savings and flew to New Delhi, India. Aged two, Lawand was fitted with his first hearing aids.

By British standards, where new-born babies are automatically screened for hearing loss and fitted with aids within weeks, this came late. Research indicates the first two years, as the child’s brain grows and forms neurological connections, are critical for establishing a working language. Postpone hearing aids, or sign language input, and the normal rate of development becomes progressively harder to achieve.

So, Lawand was in a race against time: On return from India, Rebwar was advised that for his son also needed a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT). Inevitably, Chwarqurna had none. Again, Rebwar made financial sacrifices and flew to neighbouring Iran. For two months, Lawand had daily appointments with an SLT using Iran’s national Farsi language.

However, Rebwar soon became aware of the futility of this: as the family’s own native language and Farsi are different languages. It was only then Rebwar understood the full benefits of SLT therapy are specific to the child’s own language: an obvious point to many of us in the west, but not so to people in a country lacking public information about deafness.

So, Rebwar conceded defeat. In what felt like a final throw of the dice, he made a second flight to New Delhi and made the case for Lawand to have a cochlear implant – a surgically-implanted device that gives profoundly deaf children access to a fuller spectrum of sounds than hearing aids can deliver.

On return to Chwarqurna, Lawand began nursery class, only for fate to take another twist as northern Iraq was thrown into turmoil once more. As the family fled in panic, Lawand’s education was halted even as it had barely started.

photo-15.jpegNew friends, new dreams

Northern Iraq’s future is dire. Many of its schools and hospitals are closed or barely function. Half of the region’s health workers have fled the country.

Even in peaceful times, Chwarqurna lacked the deaf community infrastructure that Derby enjoys – underpinned by the Royal School which brings together families of deaf children and young people into mutual support groups, all giving each emotional and practical support.

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Indeed, Lawand’s many new deaf friends feel so attached to him, that one, 11-year old Layla (above), has uploaded to You Tube an eloquent sign language poem that captures Lawand’s hopes and fears.

The interview over, I keep my promise to Lawand and Rawa and we head out to a local park to play football. I’m struck by how Lawand’s communication skills have blossomed at deaf school. I ask who’s your favourite football team? As quick as a flash, Lawand fingerspells B-A-R-C-E-L-O-N-A. Favourite player? L-I-O-N-E-L  M-E-S-S-I. Who’s better Messi or Ronaldo? And we’re getting into the finer details. Ronaldo wins more trophies, but Messi gets more goals. And, so on and on.

Like so many deaf children starved of language and communication in the early years, and still without access to his broken cochlear implant, Lawand’s quick-witted thoughts, through the visual medium of British Sign Language, are now gushing out.

As Lawand signs the names of his school friends and their hobbies, it’s clear to me that, in additional to the political, legal and moral arguments, the human case for Lawand to remain in England is exceptional.

If Lawand is deported, he will have no further access to his newly acquired British Sign language. His communication will shut down. He will suffer the trauma of being unable to enjoy a shared language with family, friends and teachers.

photoAs we race to the playground climbing frames, Lawand resumes his Spiderman act once more. I sign to him: “Don’t you get dizzy hanging upside-down like that? “No,” he signs back. “I’m a superhero!”

Does nothing make him afraid, I wonder? Which leads me to the big question: “If you had the chance, would you like to go back to Chwarqurna?”

“No,” he shakes his head decisively. “I have nightmares about going back. I don’t want to go to a place with no deaf school, no-one I can talk to in my new British Sign Language.”

“It’s my dream to stay in Derby,” says Lawand. “This is my home. My friends are here. My heart is here.”

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Please support the 38 Degrees petition by signing it and sharing Lawand’s story with your friends.

INTERVIEW AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHEN ILIFFE