By Danuta Kean
Mohammed, a gangly 17-year-old who fled Syria with no hope of seeing his family again, dreams of being a footballer. Drita saw a side to humanity no 16-year-old should during her journey from eastern Europe. Now, she has pinned her hopes on becoming a teacher. Abu has a dream too. The 18-year-old longs to stand in his grandmother’s kitchen in South Sudan, mouth watering in anticipation of her cooking. It is a dream he has consigned to fantasy. “I can’t see me being able to go back,” he says.
Mohammed, Abu and Drita are all part of Amazing People of the World, a 144-strong community group of young refugees, none older than 21, that meets regularly in a draughty church hall in Croydon, south London. It is one of four refugee groups that have contributed to a visionary public art project launching on Friday, as part of Poetry International and the London literature festival.The Wall of Dreams is a giant projection designed by Danish artist and poet Morten Søndergaard. From Friday night, the recorded dreams of hundreds of refugees and migrants living in the UK will be displayed on the exterior of the Royal Festival Hall in London for three weeks.Four boys, hoodies up, ribbed each other, but another said: “I want to write poetry. I like it.”It is an epic sight. Visible from across the Thames and to train passengers chugging into Charing Cross, the walls features 550 dreams. At sunset, standing outside the 1950s concrete-and-glass arts centre, it looks as if the wall is tumbling down, broken up by the dreams that escape into the night sky.The dreams range from the everyday (“I dream of being an accountant”) and wistful (“I dream of getting lost”) to the heartbreaking: “I dream of seeing my mamma one last time”. All of them were shared at workshops overseen by poets Kayo Chingonyi and Jasmine Ann Cooray during the summer.Sign up for the Bookmarks email Read moreIn August, Refugee Youth, which works with the Amazing People group, let me attend a workshop run by Zambian-born Chingonyi. Squeezed around a long white Formica table covered with a homely checked cloth, Chingonyi explained the concept to the room. “Think of what you dream about. It can be anything, it can be big or small, but it has to be yours,” he said before handing out paper and pens. A few giggled. Four east African boys, baseball caps screwed down tight on their heads, hoodies up, ribbed each other, but another, with a soft-voiced authority that made the others quieten down, said: “I want to write poetry. I like it.”A huddle of three women seated beside me whispered to each other. Snatches of their conversation escaped: hints of careers, struggles and hopes. When Chingonyi called time, the room dissolved into chaos, then silence, as each huddle read from the scraps of paper.The readings were moving, but they were not melancholic: the group crackled with a joy that comes across in the projections. As well as dreams of innocence lost to experience (“I dream of peace in my father’s homeland”, “I dream that I can see my fears clearly enough as if they are in the sun”), there are the dreams of swimming in the sea with a sister, eating chocolate with friends, making someone laugh again. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Wall of Dreams at the Southbank Centre, in London Photograph: Caspar StevensWhat dominates is determination to be more than displaced people, to make big contributions to their new home.
One dreams of becoming policewoman, another of helping the homeless and another of “protecting the place where I am living”.That safety and peace are not fixed values is another strong theme in the poems. Chatting after the workshop with Abu and his friends, all from east Africa, I ask why he left Sudan at 15, on a perilous journey alone through Africa and across the Mediterranean. A moment before, they were joshing me about my shorthand, but the question kills the jokes. Abu is incredulous. “Why did I come?” Looks are traded between the four. One of them hisses: “Because, if I had stayed, I would have been killed.”The Guardian Books podcast Man Booker prize 2017 and poet Kayo Chingonyi – books podcastOn this week’s podcast, we pull apart the 2017 Man Booker prize longlist and talk to poet Kayo Chingonyi about masculinity and race ListenIt is a rare moment of awkwardness in an evening marked by joy. Chingonyi says the happy atmosphere was typical. “What stood out working with the group was the feeling of lightness. The fact that these community spaces are places in which lightness is possible, and the ability to laugh, dance and tell stories together was special. ”The altruism of the teenage dreamers was typical of all involved, including Nomad (which works with refugees under 35), Caras and Women for Refugee Women, says Bea Colley, the Southbank Centre’s literature participation producer. Colley saw the projection as a way of allowing refugees to have their own say. “By being projected on the outside wall, passers-by will see the dreams of a community whose own voices are rarely heard and often obscured by prejudice,” she says.
The dreams smash every tabloid stereotype. “I dream of seeing my son graduate,” wrote a member of Women for Refugee Women, a dream that could have come from any British parent, while a young migrant’s words could have been written by any sixth former: “I dream of travelling the world.”
But the insecurity of asylum-seeker status underscores what was written, says Cooray. “I had the impression it was easier to think further into an imagined future than a realistic near future, because the present is so uncertain and traumatic,” she observes after time with some of the groups.
It is an outcome that pleases Søndergaard, whose original Wall of Dreams was screened in a Copenhagen housing complex, where Danes and refugees had their dreams projected inside apartments. Though he admits the logistics of the Southbank project were challenging, the symbolism of its move outside appealed: “It makes it about refugees and immigrants breaking out from the spaces that hide them.”
He adds that: “There is a huge difference in the dreams in London. The scope is much bigger,” he adds. “One of them says: ‘I dream of not being afraid of giving up my privilege.’ That strikes me, because I think that is why people are afraid of refugees. They think refugees threaten their privilege.”
What is his dream? “To project the Wall of Dreams on to Trump Tower,” he shoots back, before launching into his plan to make it happen.
- Some of the names have been changed to protect the identities of the refugees.
- Wall of Dreams is at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall from Friday 13 October to Wednesday 1 November to coincide with the Southbank Centre’s London literature festival, Poetry International and its year-long celebration of Nordic arts and culture, Nordic Matters.