Participatory arts are forms of artistic expression – through media such as drama, video, and photography – that actively engage participants in the process of making art. This article explores three cases in which participatory arts were used to engage young refugees in the UK.
Problems and Purpose
During the processes of resettlement and integration, young refugees are faced with numerous challenges associated with making sense of past experiences and getting accustomed to a new place. These include overcoming trauma, combating negative stereotypes, and struggling with feelings of loneliness and uncertainty (Lockowandt, 2013: 4; Orton, 2009). In addition to these challenges, young refugees often face barriers to full integration, including poverty, poor housing conditions, poor English-language skills, discrimination, social isolation, complicated bureaucratic procedures, and difficulties accessing mainstream services (Lockowandt, 2013: 7). These latter barriers only serve to exacerbate the challenges posed by moving to a new location.
Participatory arts offer a way of mitigating these challenges. While specific objectives will vary by project, they share the common benefits of building participants’ confidence, trust, and sense of identity, as well as increasing their autonomy, independence, and ability to integrate (Couch, 2007: 40). Participatory arts have further been shown to contribute positively to young refugees’ self-image, enhancing their resilience and changing attitudes (Lockowandt, 2013; Couch, 2007).
Background History and Context
Engaging refugees and asylums seekers through participatory arts is a fairly established approach that has evolved over time. Actively utilized in the United Kingdom since the 1970s, its presence and practice was not widespread or noticeable. In the 1990s, the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers through participatory arts slowly emerged as a recognizable phenomenon (Kidd et al.). Different organizations implemented art projects through which young refugees had an opportunity to integrate in the community. According to Kidd and colleagues, there are around 200 organizations in the United Kingdom that are implementing programs related to arts and refugees.
The engagement of refugees through participatory arts gained critical momentum in the 2000s. Certain key factors played a critical role in its rapid evolution. One of the key factors was dispersal policy, which was established in 2000, and enabled refugees to acquire housing across the United Kingdom. Other factors include strategic initiatives and funding programs, which were started by various organizations in the late 1990s, and a positive response to negative coverage by media in relation to refugee and asylum seekers’ issues.
Throughout the history of participatory arts, there have been about 200 organizations that have actively strived for improving the engagement process of disadvantaged and marginalized people, such as refugees. PhotoVoice is one of the 200 organizations that has been actively involved with young refugees in East London since 2002. It engages young refugees and asylum seekers through participatory arts and allows young refugees to represent themselves the way they see themselves through their photography and digital storytelling options. For instance, one of its implemented participatory photography programs was a four-year long program, “Moving Lives,” which was aimed at assisting in the engagement and integration of separated young refugees in London. Through the Moving Lives project, 120 vulnerable children including young refugees and asylum seekers received training in different sections of art, such as photography skills, leading to different educational, therapeutic, self-development, and advocacy outcomes (Barnes, 2).
The Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF) is another such example of a leading organization that has contributed in the evolution and development of participatory arts and engagement of disadvantaged and marginalized people like refugees and asylum seekers. Paul Hamlyn Foundation was established in 1987 and its mission is “to help people overcome disadvantage and lack of opportunity, so that they can realize their potential and enjoy fulfilling and creative lives.” (Retrieved from Paul Hamlyn Foundation website, 2016). One of PHF’s programs, the idea for which was generated by a trustee of PHF who is also a refugee, was the creation of Foundation’s Fund for refugees and asylum seekers in 2003. The focus of the foundation was to address unfairness and inequalities. Within four years, it spent £3.3 million on arts projects to support activities that helped integrate and engage refugees and asylum seekers between the ages of 11 and 18 within the host communities (Barnes, 2009).
The use of participatory arts for engaging refugees is a historical phenomenon that is still going evolving in the United Kingdom. Based on its success in the United Kingdom, participatory arts is an approach that can be applied throughout the world while being tailored and applied throughout the world.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
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Participant Recruitment and Selection
Participatory arts projects that focus on young refugees do so to engage them in the community because the young generation of refugees has gone through a lot of trauma and painful experiences. Their resettlement process was coupled with poverty, poor housing, low English- language skills, discrimination, isolation, and other challenges.
There are different methods for recruiting young refugee participants, such as advertisements regarding project opportunities, coordinating with organizations that are working with refugees, and art exhibitions, concerts and theatrical performances. The most common approach used for recruiting participants is participatory arts approach, which focuses on projects with a shared ownership of decision-making between the participants and the facilitators. It often addresses non arts-led agendas and dialogues, such as health, regeneration or education (Kidd et al, 2008.).
Methods and Tools Used
Definitions of participatory arts vary, since it is a method that entails a combination of participation and a variety of art forms. For the purposes of this article, a participatory activity is defined as one that goes beyond “mere consultations” with participants, and “aims to activate critical thinking and decision-making, transforming participants into active citizens” (Lockowandt, 2013: 3). Participatory arts, therefore, are forms of artistic expression – through media such as drama, video, and photography – that actively engage participants in the process of making art. This engagement occurs along three main dimensions: (1) production, or the actual “making” of art; (2) decision-making, which determines what type of art is produced, and by and for whom; and (3) consumption (NESF, 2007: 2). Projects adopting participatory arts as a method stress shared ownership of the decision-making process, and their activities often address non-arts agendas, such as generating dialogue (Lockowandt, 2013: 8).
Participatory arts have been found to offer a particularly effective way of mitigating the resettlement and integration challenges of young refugees. Participatory arts can build participants’ confidence, trust, and sense of identity, as well as increase their autonomy, independence, and ability to integrate. Participatory arts have further been shown to contribute positively to young refugees’ self-image, enhancing their resilience and changing attitudes.
A participatory arts approach to working with young refugees is most appropriate when the project’s primary interest lies in the ownership of the creative process by young refugees and its transformational potential; participants can relate to the project’s plans; empowerment is a priority; there is enough time for consultation and developing outcomes; and there are feedback mechanisms embedded within the project. Criticisms of this approach include potential for exploitation, short-term utilization, and lack of systematic evaluation.
Specific project objectives vary according to organization and target population. One purpose for which participatory arts has been utilized is social and cultural inclusion. This is defined as “the process by which certain groups are brought from the margins of society to participate more fully in that society through the removal of the barriers” that have been put in place by “low education, inadequate life-skills, and/or low recognition and status in terms of cultural identity and contribution” (NESF, 2007: 1). In this context, participatory arts is seen as counteracting the effects of these barriers by providing a platform for the redistribution of access to artistic resources, the ability to generate and sustain cultural capital, and the capacity to engage actively in cultural citizenship (NESF, 2007: 3). In other words, it allows participants equal access to the arts as creators, producers, distributors, commentators, and decision-makers – not just as consumers (Matarasso, 2006).
Another purpose for which participatory arts has been utilized is civic engagement. Projects that involve the use of public spaces are seen as being able to “activate” and inform the redefinition of shared spaces such as parks and neighborhoods (Lewis, 2013: 10). Such projects afford participants the opportunity to re-imagine the possibilities for their communities, take ownership, and re-purpose these shared spaces. Participatory arts also support civic engagement by bringing together people of multiple and overlapping social and cultural groups to focus on artistic and community-related challenges, “bringing collective imagination to bear on artistic challenges while making room for larger common issues” (Lewis, 2013: 8).
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
As established earlier, participatory arts, as a method, does not have one formulaic or “correct” approach. As (Lockowandt, 2013: )5 succinctly puts it: “A guideline to participatory arts is by its nature paradoxical. The goal of participatory activities is that the reins are handed over to participants, who become responsible for shaping and moulding the direction of the project and its outcomes.” Despite this, participatory arts activities – and especially those engaging young refugees – are expected to have certain characteristics to reach optimum effect.
First and foremost, as a project “with” (versus “by” or “for”) young refugees, communication between project leaders and participants, which discusses project outcomes and how creative works will be used, is absolutely paramount. Prior to this, however, the facilitator (often an organization) should consider and define (1) its role in the project (i.e., the amount of control and influence over decisions and resources; (2) its aims (i.e. the needs it is meeting); and (3) what approach is most appropriate (i.e., whether a participatory approach is best). Once these have been determined, they need to be balanced by an ethical framework that is sensitive to the experiences and needs of the young refugees being engaged. Five core principles lie at the heart of such a framework (adapted from Lockowandt, 2013: 16).
- Choice, ensuring that participants’ agenda is not pre-empted
- Respect developed via the creative process, and modeled by facilitators
- Equality with groups that have little experience, through the creative process
- Safety by focusing on the present/future, and not requirement to disclose
- Facilitator competence through support, training, and shared perspectives
A participatory arts approach to working with young refugees is most appropriate when, given the facilitator’s aims and the ethical framework outlined above, the primary interest lies in the ownership of the creative process by young refugees and its transformational potential; participants can relate to the project’s plans; empowerment is a priority; there is enough time for consultation and developing outcomes; and there are feedback mechanisms embedded within the project (Lockowandt, 2013: 10). It is suggested that a participatory approach is not appropriate when the focus is on creating a quality artistic product, when there is no clear project aim, or when there are time constraints on activity (Ibid). Below are three cases in which participatory arts were successfully used with young refugees.
Case 1. Photography and Integration: The PhotoVoice Project
PhotoVoice, a project focusing on young refugees, was established in East London in 2002. Six years later, a new phase of the project called “New Londoners” was introduced. This new project focuses specifically on mentoring by pairing refugee youth, ages sixteen to twenty-three, with emerging and successful photographers in the community. The project began with fifteen pairings, that included individuals from ten different countries. The young refugee participants in the New Londoners project had worked in some way with PhotoVoice in the past, and expressed an interest in photography.
The mentorship emphasis allows mentors to work one-on-one with the mentees in to “...support, affirm, advise, enthuse and encourage the mentee and ultimately to enable them to reach their full photographic potential” (Orton, 2009: 3). For the mentees, photography became a means of individual self-expression and storytelling. Photography enables them to reveal what they were feeling, thinking, and experiencing without feeling pressured to have a verbal dialogue. PhotoVoice believes that this project allows refugees to explore and form an understanding of their prior and current experiences (Kidd et al., 2008: 33). The mentors and mentees would typically meet twice a month in social settings to review the mentee’s latest photographs. Through this structure, the pairs gained a rapport and comfort level that facilitated conversations in which the refugees could comfortably reveal the meaning of their photographs.
One of the main things New Londoner has worked to achieve is a mind-set of moving past personal testimonials, and facilitating spaces where being a refugee is part of who an individual is, but not letting it define them. A participant explained: “We have different experiences from other young people and it’s important that other people learn about those experiences, but we don’t want them to make us different” (Orton, 7). The focus and relationship building structure of New Londoner fostered environments for these hopes to come to fruition. Although the original plan was to terminate the formal mentor/mentee relationships at the end of 2008 some continue to this day.
Case 2. Participatory Theater and Film Arts Project
Stats Smagala and Theo Bryer, of A Head Taller, partnered with Lewisham KS4 Access to Schools Programme and Forest Hill School in the United Kingdom to facilitate a participatory arts project called “Making Changes: Drama as an Additional Language.” This project targeted 13 to 16-year-old early-stage bilingual learners attending a secondary school. The project worked with this particular group for one academic term to develop and film a story about starting a new journey and overcoming challenges. The film was then shown to primary school-aged boys and served as a prompt to create dramas about the challenges of transitioning to secondary school. The whole process was filmed and made into a documentary (Smagala, 2009: 28).
The project began as a response to a need at a high school with a large number of new arrival refugee students, and unfolded into three steps. First, participants spent three sessions building trust and getting to know each other in the context of a creative group. This stage was crucial to overcoming the inherent vulnerability of the creative process and creating a safe space free of judgment. It was only after these trust-building session that documentary filming began. Second, the boys spent several weeks developing a story using various drama techniques. With the book ‘Tales Told in Tents, Stories from Central Asia’ as a prompt, the group shared and discussed ideas about their emerging story. This stage also entailed the process of play and teacher modeling to help the boys understand how to make their own drama and get in and out of character. The story first emerged as a tale of young men who leave their village to embark on a mission. Each week, new ideas were added to the story line. Lastly, the boys spent an intense two days filming the final storyline of their collaboratively produced tale. No formal evaluation of the project occurred, but the project team defined success in terms of social gains and education gains -- social gains from improved cooperation and mutual understanding, and education gain from improved English ability (Smagala, 2009: 28- 33).
Integral to the project’s implantation was creating a safe space for participants. Key to this was the decision to focus on fictitious events, which mitigated the potential for unpleasant emotional reactions to sharing personal accounts of conflict and the strife associated with being a refugee. This safe space flourished because communication through drama allowed the boys to speak in a “common symbolic language,” which gave the boys more freedom of expression as new learners of English (Smagala, 25).
Case 3: Music for Change
Music for change is an organization founded in 1997 by Tom Andrews. Celebration, Education and Respect summarize its underlying philosophy for using music for change. The organization is based in Kent, United Kingdom, but its operations are widespread across the South Eastside in London. In 2008, Music for Change reached over 120,000 people and engaged more than 150 artists in different types of artistic and music activities (Noble, 2009: 13). The bulk of artists at Music for Change are either current or former refugees from countries including Sierra Leone, Ghana, Bosnia, Argentina, China, India, Zimbabwe, Trinidad, and Jamaica. These artists worked together to break down and challenge preconceptions and prejudices, while at the same time highlighting cultural resemblances and valuing differences.
The primary focus of Music for Change was white primary schools in Kent. However, in late 2004, its operation expanded and started a new project aimed at young refugees. The project was primarily funded by the Arts Council and with an additional contribution provided by Youth Music Action Zones in Thanet and Surrey/Sussex. The project had two different but linked components. The first component focused on conducting workshops for newly arrived and more established refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants living in Kent. The second component included activities in schools such as holding music and performance workshops to enhance awareness and understanding regarding these refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants. This project was implemented in partnership with three other organizations: Migrant Helpline, Kent Refugee Support Group, and the Finding Your Feet Project. Each partner organization helped at different fronts. For instance, Migrant Helpline undertook music activities in the centers that would offer stress relief, worked on overcoming barriers in communication between residents, and raised morale. These activities not only benefited the refugees and asylum seekers, but provided an opportunity for the host communities in the UK to get familiarized with something diverse. The workshop was facilitated and led by a UK-based Sierra Leonean.
Working with refugees and asylum seekers who live in the UK as exiles, either by choice or necessity, and using their expertise and skills not only helped in the integration and engagement of these refugees and asylum seekers, but also complemented and benefited the work of Music for Change.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The above three cases are illustrations of the successful utilization of participatory arts with young refugees. It is apparent that this method has been successful in enhancing refugee experiences of, and ultimately furthering, the integration process. There are a multitude of mediums employed under the guise of participatory arts; however, each focuses on creating a space conducive for relationship and confidence building, creating a sense of belonging, encouraging personal creativity through multiple means of communication, and facilitating social activities to name a few. These projects, programs, and organizations that use participatory arts with young refugees all work to create neutral spaces for interaction, observation, and creativity.
Creative projects give refugees opportunities to express themselves in a manner that makes sense to them, and that they ultimate control. A sense of ownership and control is vital to refugee acclimation and the integration process. In a time when they have control over little in their lives, participatory arts give them ownership of something. In the PhotoVoice case, for example, “[...] photographs provide a way that young refugees can create their own more personalized records. Evidence that they are in charge of, that they can frame in their own terms” (Orton, 2009: 5). This idea of a sense of ownership can also be seen in the Oval House Theatre case. During storytelling, practitioners asked “‘What happened next?’” giving youth refugees the opportunity to fill in the gaps of stories with their own ideas (Muir, 2009: 25). This sense of ownership is also linked to confidence building, which is another focus and outcome of the use of participatory arts with young refugees. PhotoVoice, its mentors and mentees have expressed “... it has been a rich learning experience. What has been so exciting has been watching the young people’s confidence in their own abilities flourish” (Orton, 2009: 3). Giving young refugees the outlet and space required to feel ownership and confidence is critical to the expression process.
The use of participatory arts with young refugees also empowers refugees and the community to create a personal connection and build trust. By participating in these projects, programs, and organizations, refugees are able to make connections with other refugees and members of the community. The Oval House Theatre utilizes a practice that encourages young refugees to practice the meaning of “terms such as respect, diversity, cooperation, and negotiation” during interaction (Muir, 2009: 24). This process enables youth to use the terms and their understanding of them when interacting with the others. Efforts have been made in Glasgow, with an organization called The Village Storytelling Centre to engage community members in “building bridges” with the refugee community (Kidd et al., 2008: 35). The use of mentorships has enabled mentees in the PhotoVoice program to create connections through images. As the mentees become comfortable sharing the meaning behind the photographs, they form bonds with the mentors and the community in which they are taking photos (Orton, 2009: 7). Participatory arts with young refugees also enhances professional and developmental skills, while broadening the experiences of refugees. This happens as a result of the creative lens applied for self-expression, and communication with others.
The relationship focus, and social settings for participatory art with young refugees has also changed stereotypes. A project called Actors for Refugees utilizes performances by actors to break the negative attitudes towards refugees. Through this setting a positive impact has been made: surveys taken by the audience indicate that they learn from the performances, and want to learn more and become more involved (Kidd et al., 2008: 41). A more time consuming approach has been taken by other participatory art programs. This can be seen in the PhotoVoice case with the use of local photographers in a mentorship setting. Ultimately, these efforts have resulted in young refugees and community members engaging in positive dialogue. These conversations have enabled the sharing of attitude, hopes, and ambition for their future in the world (Orton, 7).
Regardless of the participatory arts approach taken, the results have increased young refugee acclimation and cultivated a positive impact on the integration process. Nonetheless, like any process for change and impact, there are criticisms and trepidations associated with the use of participatory arts with young refugees.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Analysis of the design of participatory arts projects with young refugees necessitates the demarcation of what the method is and is not: it is not therapy and its main goal is not the production of art; it is a method practices with refugees not for refugees. While the arts can be therapeutic, participatory arts are not a substitute for professional therapy or arts-based therapy (Hybrid et al., 51). Participants should not be exposed to unnecessary vulnerability that is associated with personal storytelling. While there is an artistic element to the method, the main focus is not the production of world-class art. The main focus of participatory arts with young refugees should be on the creative expression of young people. Participants should first be treated as young people, not as artists (Mazur, 2009: 10). Most importantly, participatory arts with young refugees should be viewed as a partnership with practitioners and young refugees, not a service for young refugees as recipients or beneficiaries. When young refugees are viewed as partners and are consulted in the design and planning of projects, their individual needs and interests are better addressed and the capacity of projects to impact their lives in relevant ways increases (Mazur, 2009: 11).
A widely cited criticism of participatory arts with refugees is the potential for this methodology to exploit the traumatic experiences of refugees. There is an ethical concern of “mining” traumatic stories for their shock value as a means to sate the curiosity listeners (Barnes, 2009 :25). Art that shares personal stories of trauma perpetuates a sense of “us” and “them” and focuses on an identity of the refugee that the did not choose. Some practitioners have found it valuable to acknowledge participants as the people they are now -- residents of their new communities -- instead of as refugees (Barnes, 2009: 36). Additionally, an emphasis on traumatic, personal stories opens refugees up to emotional vulnerability and exposes them to unnecessary risk. To avoid this ethical dilemma, participants should not be expected to share personal stories unless it is their choice (Hybrid et al., 51). Participatory arts should focus on hypothetical and symbolic art. One practitioner, Oval House, created a “Risk Table” to map the level of personal and creative risk associated with an art project (Barnes, 2009: 38). Oval House developed the table as part of its ongoing process of developing a robust ethical framework.
Participatory arts is also criticized for its frequent short-term use. Accordingly, there may not be enough time for participants to develop the necessary skills and trust to create a meaningful product in a safe space. The creative process of producing art exposes participants to vulnerability and necessitates fostering bonds of trust between practitioners and participants and between the participants themselves (Barnes, 2009: 36). While long-term projects help mitigate ethical concerns, they can be too taxing on participants’ time and exclude those with less time and ability to commit the project from participating.
Participation barriers like “economic costs, poor transport, lack of literacy, and social and psychological barriers” can further marginalize and exclude refugees, who are already one the most vulnerable groups in a society (NESF, 2007: 107). The arts are intended to strengthen the social capital of refugees and bridge inequality gaps, but if substantial barriers to participation exist like listed above, inequity within refugee communities can widen.
The use of participatory arts in refugee settings is plagued with a lack of systemic evaluation. While most organizations “reflect on their practice and keep records of outputs and impacts achieved, there is little systematic collation of evaluation material other than in the form of reports to funders” (Grossman et al., 2013: 53). A lack of funds has prevented rigorous independent evaluation and monitoring. The Paul Hamlyn Foundation created a free Evaluation Resource Pack* for participatory arts that can be accessed online (Grossman et al., 2013: 53). Once more rigorous evaluation is conducted and shared, practitioners of participatory arts with young refugees can work towards a more evidence-based approach to establishing methods of best practice.
*See http://www.phf.org.uk/publications/ for a full list of evaluation resources.
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Participatory Arts with Young Refugees: essays on participatory art projects with young refugees and asylum seekers in the UK
The first version of this article was researched and written by Christina Hayhow, May Maani, Naqibullah Salarzai & Leslye Womack and uploaded to Participedia for them by Naqibullah Salarzai on May 11th, 2016.