Through Art, Humanity Lasts
In the world’s largest refugee camp, Baisali met musicians who told her that music was their freedom.
Bangladesh, South Asia
This story is based on an interview with Baisali Mohanty by CotW team members.
From 2018 to 2020, I was stationed at the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh near the Myanmar border as a Policy Programme Officer for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). Kutupalong is the world’s largest refugee camp with nearly 1 million refugees . I was interested in the Rohingya crisis before working for WFP and I had written about it as a journalist, but I knew the stories of refugees only from a distance. When I arrived at the camp, I was still unfamiliar with the situation. Working and living at the camp was physically and emotionally draining. The concept of a ‘weekend’ became obsolete. I would just work, eat and sleep. But it was not as strenuous as it sounds because my colleagues and I were helping people who have gone through so much. And, I met the musicians.
Although I did not understand their language fluently, I could feel that the music brought them closer to home.
There was this elderly violinist in his 70s, who played the violin every evening, simply for himself. When he played, people gathered around him. Although I did not understand their language fluently, I could feel that the music brought them closer to home.
I met other refugee musicians in the camp as well. I asked the musicians what music meant to them. They answered that music is the closest they can be to home. They said they wanted peace and music for them was peace. The violinist said, “music is my freedom.” That resonated with me. I thought about how the refugees do not know if or when they will be able to go home. Yet, they practice their art. I decided then to do something with these musicians and the art they produce. I wanted to communicate their plight, but also their spirit of hopefulness, to the outside world.
As an artist myself, I always think that art is an important tool for communication, even where language fails. First, I recorded their music with my phone, and I tried some choreography with it. Then, I showed it to my WFP managers. We collaborated with the Rohingya musicians, who voluntarily worked with us to create the piece retelling their stories with their music. They told their stories through the lyrics in their songs. I worked with my colleagues at the camp to create a short documentary combining their music with a refugee telling his story of coming to the camps at age 17. The piece was released by the UN for World Refugee Day.
The piece is a culmination of what I experienced and felt for the past two years working at the camp. The more closely I worked with those musicians and other refugees, the more I saw the human side of these people. This means more than to empathize with them. With the art piece I wanted to show that no matter what religion, ethnicity, and culture we belong to, our humanity lasts. I wanted to invoke the message that refugees are as normal as we are. Collaborating with the Bangladeshi musicians also helped to foster understanding, as the documentary also tells the story of how Bangladesh provided shelter for the refugees long before the UN came.
There are so many ways to connect with people. I choose art and dance to connect with the people around me.
There are so many ways to connect with people. I choose art and dance to connect with the people around me. Each of us may be just a drop in the water, but we create ripples and can still impact each other in many different ways. This is what I felt strongly when I stumbled upon the refugee musicians who, through their art, create home and peace.
You can watch Baisali’s dance documentary here.
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Baisali puts the perspectives of most-affected people in the spotlight through art. She collaborated with musicians from the refugee camp to showcase their music and stories. In a similar way, Julie and Milton describe how they paint strong and powerful images of women, people of color, and people from communities often excluded in art. They challenge norms of gender and race in their paintings, and, in doing so, invite viewers to see women, gender, race, and people from other cultures in new ways.
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