Building a bridge between refugees and Australia through art

Christmas Island Boat Tragedy by K. Source:


Refugee woman. Source: Rebecca Bats.

Once abundant towns, now stand deserted with the sound of  gunfire in nearby mountains which disturb your sleep.

Your pillow is wet from the tears you cry not knowing where your family members are.

A far too familiar story known to refugees.

In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states there was 65.3 million refugees worldwide.

Of this, 9,399 refugees resettled in Australia.

For most Australians, turning on the television and seeing a war zone has become a humdrum segment of the daily news and many are disconnected from the stories of asylum seekers and refugees.

The Refugee Art Project is trying to change this.

They hope to build a bridge between the Australian public and refugees through showcasing the Villawood refugee’s artwork.

The Sydney-based organisation is a non-for-profit community art project that seeks to help the self-expression of asylum seekers and refugees through creative works.

Co-founder, Safdar Ahmed says that art is fundamental to freedom of expression and human rights.

“I think that because the situation of asylum seekers and refugees in detention centres is so punitive and so restrictive. It seems important that albeit through the art work, paintings and drawings we can somehow amplify their voices,” Mr Ahmed says.

(source: Rebecca Bats)

The project began after Mr Ahmed visited the Villawood detention centre in Sydney in 2010.

“I didn’t want to only visit and gawk at people and walk away and feel powerless, because I studied art I thought wouldn’t it be a nice idea to see if someone wanted to draw with me and that’s I guess how it all began,” Mr Ahmed says.

“My strongest impression of visiting Villawood was seeing the sheer awfulness of their mental health situation in detention. People are caught in limbo, they’re caught in indefinite mandatory detention and none of them have any idea when they’re going to be released.”

Soon after this initial thought Mr Ahmed had a group of people interested in sharing the activity.

Mr Ahmed puts emphasis on the importance the art project has had for the refugees individual self-expression and empowerment.

Most refugees in the workshop paint about their experiences. Source: Rebecca Bats.

Mr Ahmed says that the workshops do not direct the participants who are encouraged to paint whatever they wish.

He says the works produced range across a whole spectrum and are very diverse, complex and rich.

“In some cases people don’t want to make art work about the traumas that they’ve endured because that would be re-traumatising to them. But for other people it’s empowering to make work that related to their refugee experience,” Mr Ahmed says.

He also believes there is great importance in public awareness of the stories and feelings illustrated through the refugee’s art work.

After seeing powerful work Mr Ahmed and his colleagues decided this would be a great way to advocate these issues through public exhibitions and change prejudices.

The project stresses that it is not art therapy, but rather uses art as a means of self-expression and empowerment and this itself can be “therapeutic”.

“It’s more about working with the community to try and support them in expressing themselves which hopefully gives them a sense of agency and empowerment. None the less many of the refugees who participate in our project have said that it does help their mental health and help them relax and bit and immerse themselves in something which is beneficial so that’s good,” Mr Ahmed says.

The therapeutic value of art. Source: Rebecca Bats.

Whilst, Mr Ahmed is an advocate for using art for self-expression he does not believe it will make the refugee’s at Villawood have a better time in detention.

“If people ever say ‘Oh do you think there’s a good way to make detention centres better?’ my answer is no because the purpose of detention centres is essentially to punish refugees as a deterrent to stop other refugees from coming to Australia like that’s the government’s basic policy,” he says.

Refugees paint through their pain. Source: Rebecca Bats.

“Whilst it’s important to counteract the misconceptions that exist towards refugees and the demonisation of refugees in the public discourse. It is important to not only view them as refugees and I hope that the diversity, complexity and richness the art work produced in our program does that,” Mr Ahmed says.

Mr Ahmed says that the art workshops might help the refugees a little but they cannot really address the fundamental issues which is the fact that detention is indefinite and there’s no real way of improving their situation until they are out of detention.

“I think that is sometimes quite reductive to look at a person only through the lens of their experience of persecution and to look at them only as a refugee… the art work conveys something of their personality, something of their culture, history, heritage, their life beyond being simply a refugee and I think that’s important as well,” he says.

To view the collection of art work or see when The Refugee Art Project is holding an exhibition visit


Rebecca Bats is a freelance journalist with interests in politics and foreign affairs, environmental issues and popular culture. She is enthusiastic and ready to undertake her social responsibilities!

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