Coffee entrepreneur delivers online art exhibition to aid refugees

An artwork in the exhibition. Pic: sallysartatelier

An online art exhibition was organised by Lewisham-based coffee entrepreneur Usman Khalid to support the first ever virtual Refugee Week/

The exhibition, on the theme of “Imagine” ran from June 15 to June 21 and featured artists with different backgrounds including refugees, migrants, and non-migrants.

Khalid, originally from Pakistan and founder of cofee pop-up Haven Coffee, told Eastlondonlines that he had been supporting and raising awareness for refugee communities across the UK, from promoting refugee artists to organizing events. He had provided around 15 refugees with barista training to improve their employability.

“I know many refugees, and none of them want to sit home and live off of benefits. All of them want to work. All of them want to return to society. All of them want to pay taxes,” Khalid told ELL. “This false narrative of refugees are a burden is extremely wrong, and that should be changed.”

Khalid initially planned to perform at a comedy gig with refugee topics during the Refugee Week but it was canceled due to the lockdown.

Along with Khalid, over 200 events were held online with the theme “Imagine” in the first virtual Refugee Week this year, a partnership project coordinated by Counterpoints Arts, and which was hosted by a range of organisations including community and arts organisations. It aimed to bring different communities together, highlight and explore experiences of displacement, and showcase the talents. Performances, screenings, talks, workshops, and other forms of events were presented online.

“Counterpoints Arts has connections with so many artists with different refugee backgrounds,” Khalid said. “That’s how I know these people.”

Emily Churchill Zaraa, organiser of the Refugee Week, told ELL: “Migration is part of everyone, our shared culture, a story that belongs to all of us.”

“In the UK, it can take up to twelve months for asylum seekers to gain the right to work, compared to some countries it takes about four months,” Khalid said. “Instead of treating migrants as a problem, it can be seen as a resource to grow.”

The online art exhibition gained sizeable viewers during Refugee Week although overall income was reduced due to the lockdown. Khalid is still seeking support on the crowdfunding platform to open his permanent coffee store.

Zaraa said: “It’s obviously a challenge, not everyone has an internet connection, that has become visible during this time. [There are] no internet provisions in [refugees] asylum placements.” Khalid also called on the Government “do something” to improve the environment of detention centres in the UK.

Zaraa said the first virtual Refugee Week left a legacy: “We have learned new ways of working online. It’s been good to bring people together, including really big zoom calls, with over 360 people across two zoom calls that would not have necessarily been able to get together under normal circumstances.”

More ongoing events are still available for refugees and asylum seekers to be seen and heard.

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