By Sarah Hickson
The informal refugee camp in Idomeni, a village in Northern Greece close to the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), extended across a vast area of open land around the railway station and the recently erected border fence. Tents and flimsy shelters hugged the train tracks and lined the platforms of the deserted railway hangar. The fields flooded when it rained, rapidly clogging much of the camp with thick mud. When FYROM officially closed its border with Greece in March 2016, it was reported that there were up to 14,000 displaced men, women and children from across the Middle East and Africa stranded in the Idomeni settlement. It was the largest refugee camp in Europe until Greek authorities evacuated it in May 2016.
In January 2017 articles appeared in the media about the plight of refugees struggling to survive in sub-zero temperatures in Belgrade, Serbia. Around 1,000 young men from Afghanistan and Pakistan were living rough in derelict warehouses hidden behind the grand façade of Belgrade’s central railway station. Conditions were bleak on this stretch of wasteland, overlooked by a half-finished luxury development on the riverfront. With no sanitation, the ground littered with rubble, broken glass, wires and rusting metal, and only toxic rubbish available to burn for heat and cooking, the dilapidated buildings offered little protection from the bitter Serbian winter. Occupants of the makeshift camp were evicted in May 2017.
I travelled to Northern Greece in April 2016 and to Serbia in February 2017 with the arts-led NGO Clowns Without Borders UK, to document their work with children and communities living in crisis. For children in precarious environments the opportunity to laugh and play is a welcome break from the harsh reality they face each day. It restores their rights simply to be children. For adults too living in adverse situations, it is a precious thing to witness their sons and daughters smiling and having fun.
The exhibition I am now presenting is a personal narrative. The pictures capture instantaneous and ephemeral moments of connection, glimpses of lightness and joy. They reveal both the fragility and resilience of displaced communities and give an insight into the difficult and sometimes volatile situations in which Clowns Without Borders UK work. They portray the power of theatre, play and laughter to bring communities together and to provide invaluable respite in the midst of turmoil, stress and uncertainty. They show families who had fled war-torn countries, conflict and persecution, stuck at closed borders and railway stations – places associated with movement, motion and mobility. They catch expressions of vulnerability, strength, delight and despair. I have a responsibility to tell these stories as honestly as I can, whilst respecting the dignity and rights of the people I am photographing. The paradoxes and contradictions are always in my mind.
In an increasingly challenging and polarised political climate, these narratives remind us of our shared humanity, the vital human connection forged through theatre, and the positive impact of small moments of compassion and exchange, even in the most desperate of circumstances.
SARAH HICKSON is a London-based photographer whose practice focuses on artists and performance and the role of the arts from a wider social or humanitarian perspective. Much of her recent work explores themes of migration, displacement and transition. She is interested in the relationship between people, place and context, and the intersection between photography, creative process and live performance. Her exhibition Sounds Unseen: a photographic memoir of The Calais Sessions, which chronicles a collaborative music project between musicians living in the UK and musicians living in the temporary refugee camps of Northern France, was presented at St. Ann’s Warehouse in NYC in summer 2017.
CLOWNS WITHOUT BORDERS mission is to use laughter to alleviate the suffering of children affected by war, natural disaster or crisis. They believe the need for joy, connection and hope is an essential part of what it means to be human. Through their performances and workshops they directly acknowledge children’s need for emotional support, respite and reassurance at the very worst of times. Experts in Disaster Response describe their work as ‘psychosocial first-aid’. We think it’s a vital way of telling the kids we meet, “We see you, we care about what happens to you and you are not alone”.
This month, they are creating moments of joy for children in the refugee camps of Greece, Jordan and Bangladesh. If you would like to support their work or find out more, please visit www.clownswithoutborders.org.uk
Clowns Without Borders would also like to acknowledge the complexity of sharing some of the images in the exhibition. “The people we have met in the refugee camps across Europe and beyond are not ‘only’ refugees; they are mothers, sisters, husbands, uncles, teachers, workers, students and professionals, each with their own hopes, fears and dreams. This is just one narrative.”
The exhibition is at the 12 Star Gallery, Europe House, 32 Smith Square, London SW1P 3EU until Friday 20 April 2018. Free entry, open Monday – Friday 10am – 6pm.