Do we have a gene of openness towards refugees?

Do we have a gene of openness towards refugees?

Currently, more than 50,000 refugees live in Lithuania. The majority of them have settled in the country’s major cities – Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda. In November, the first event of the „Bridges“ took place, organized by the arts agency ‘Artscape’ in collaboration with the European Countries Film Forum „Scanorama“. The discussion focused on the culture of openness, the situation of integration, and human rights.

In the discussion „Atvirumo kultūra: ką žinome apie Lietuvoje gyvenančius pabėgėlius?“ after a film screening about human rights and migration challenges „Varžovas“, Ieva Balsiūnaitė, a foreign news editor at LRT Radio, documentary filmmaker, and journalist, interviewed Renata Kuleš, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lithuania, Raimonda Lebelionytė-Alsekiene, the Integration Projects Manager at the arts agency ‘Artscape,’ sociologist Ivan Trunov, a representative of the „Gyvoji biblioteka“ community, and Dmitrij Gluščevskis, the program coordinator for „Scanorama“.

Gene of openness

Representative of the UN Refugee Agency, R. Kuleš, explains that the fate of refugees is very complex, and they often leave their countries when there is no other option. “People have to leave their homes, families, careers, their immediate environment because of persecution, conflicts or other problems in their home countries. However, in a new environment, these people are often faced with other challenges, such as a new culture, unfamiliar surroundings, language barriers, health care, difficulties in finding affordable housing, a job matching their qualifications, etc. We often lose the skills of such individuals when we do not provide them with the space to realize themselves.“says Kuleš.

She adds that the reception of refugees from Ukraine in Lithuania has shown that, fundamentally, we can be open. “We have the gene of openness for Ukrainians, but it seems we need to see whether we are also open to refugees from other countries. We need to find an alternative to pushing refugees away from the Belarusian border, as the asylum space in Lithuania is currently very limited.”

Pre-conceptions and myths

Refugees are a social group often surrounded by numerous prejudices. Ivan Trunov, a representative of the ‘Gyvoji biblioteka’ community, states that people often try to confirm their preconceived opinions about refugees rather than attempting to understand their human experiences and why they seek to establish a fulfilling life here. “It is very important to give refugees the opportunity to work in Lithuania, to get acquainted, to help them build up social capital that would help them to recover and integrate into Lithuanian society. In our library, we want to provide a space where people can learn about social diversity through the personal stories shared by our volunteers, some of whom are refugees. People become living books by sharing their experiences,” says Trunovas.

He also points out that the integration process is very difficult, as refugees face additional obstacles, such as not having their education recognised in the country and having to work odd jobs, or tenants refusing to rent because of prevailing prejudices.

According to R. Lebelionytė-Alsekienė, Integration Project Manager at Artscape, when the arts agency first started working in the field of migration, there used to be two distinct parts: the “us” and the “them”. “It’s very human to protect ourselves from real names and stories, because when you talk about statistics, vulnerable groups, it’s easier to talk, it doesn’t hurt so much. But if you talk separately about specific people from their personal stories, it hurts much more.”

Integration through art

In 2015, „Artscape“ began its activities with migrants and refugees and has a mission to increase cultural accessibility and community cohesion through professional art productions and educational programs. Collaborating with artists, local communities, and vulnerable societal groups, the agency nurtures expression, active participation in public life, and seeks socially responsible solutions, aiming to create meaningful social change.

The creative missions are aimed at the beginning of human integration. A refugee feels very insecure upon arrival. When we encounter personal stories and find commonalities in them, the work becomes easier. These people most need a simple conversation, and it is crucial that an artist intervenes,” says Raimonda Lebelionytė-Alsekienė. “The ability of artists to communicate with socially vulnerable groups is crucial. They don’t ask unnecessary questions, focus on people’s abilities, desires, and nurture their uniqueness. When you focus more on what a person can do rather than what they cannot, they bloom like a flower.”

Over the past year, the arts agency „Artscape“ conducted 596 creative missions led by 14 educators focused on art, involving 981 migrants and refugees.

Power of art

D. Gluščevskis, the program coordinator of „Scanorama“, also notes that when it comes to socially vulnerable groups, it is important to tell personal stories. “Cinema is a powerful way to tell a time-bound narrative. When creating a program, we look for films that highlight not just the complex conditions of migration but stories about love, fatherhood, a former professional wrestler who, in new circumstances, seeks himself. Then we all appeal to shared experiences, regardless of different cultures. This helps to understand that refugees and migrants are also parents, loving individuals, and dreaming teenagers, for whom not every moment is defined by their refugee status.“

According to D. Gluščevskis, art is a crucial tool that allows breaking down the walls of prejudices, and good cinema, especially when it comes to the theme of migration and refugees, is one that primarily shows the human side. “I believe that such cinema can truly build bridges,” he says.

The representative of „Artscape“ points out that it is important to focus on the personality rather than the status when carrying out creative and educational activities for migrants and refugees. “For example, in the above-mentioned film „Varžovas“, the main character says he is a dad, a wrestler and then a refugee. With a dad you talk about fatherhood, with a wrestler you talk about sport, in that way everything is easier. Lawyers, psychologists, social workers create a basic security and knowledge of one’s rights, while soft field organisations and cultural representatives focus on what a refugee is as a person, who he is, who he was, what he knew in his country, what he would like to do right now,” she says.

The event is part of the two-event series “Bridges” organised by „Artscape“ in cooperation with the European Film Forum „Scanorama“. Encouraging cultural awareness and dialogue, bridges are formed, they connect different people, worlds, and cultures, allowing exploration and discovery. The second event of the series, featuring a film screening and discussion, is planned for mid-December.

Link to the discussion:

Photos by Agnė Rita Kučinskaitė-Jakovlevė.

R. Kuleš, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lithuania

“Scanorama” Programme Coordinator D. Gluščevskis

Raimonda Lebelionytė-Alsekienė, Integration Project Manager at “Artscape”

Sociologist Ivan Trunov, a representative of the „Gyvoji biblioteka“

Journalist Ieva Balsiūnaitė

November 15, 2023