Atelier with SOS CHAI
Atelier launched summer 2019 as a creative one-week retreat at Bethanié in France. Attendees came from England, France, America and the Netherlands. During the week we had the opportunity to volunteer with the Bless Network’s ministry SOS CHAI, which serves refugees in Caen.
SOS CHAI consists of a dedicated team of regular volunteers serving about 80 migrant men in Caen, from the side of a converted ambulance. Twice a week SOS CHAI provides refugees with a hot meal, coffee, tea, basic toiletries and clothes, games and friendship. Most of the men have travelled up to France from various countries in Africa. A large proportion come from Sudan, however there are also men from elsewhere. I spoke to men from Egypt, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Ghana and Israel. All of them had travelled alone for a very long time to get to Europe in search of a better life. They all want to get to the UK, to seek asylum or generate some form of income to send home to their families. Hovering on the French border beside the Channel they are now mostly stuck or planning their route across to England. These men are good hearted and their aims heroic, even if not entirely successful. A lot of the men are tough, with incredible endurance and stamina, but they are simultaneously vulnerable, lonely and quite broken. There is no fast and easy solution to the pain and problems these refugees face. Our aim with SOS CHAI was simply to bless the men as human beings, bring them hope and joy, take care of their basic needs and show them that they are valuable.
Our Atelier team worked alongside some incredible regular volunteers this July to put on an informal party for the refugees, with a barbecue, live music, art activities and games. We set up stools and tables in the outdoor location and for the evening held an open-air café as the sun began to set. Alongside the games of UNO, Jenga and football, we had some of the team leading live music and a group of us facilitating an arts table. Some of us had a great time drawing portraits of each other and laughing at the results. A few people worked on a drawing of Bob Marley in response to the live music (the migrants had requested music from the singer-songwriter!) and one man assisted in painting onto the picture what he felt to be the correct looking hair, which was awesome. I drew the hand and watch of one young boy whilst he drew mine and we found humour in how we each kept accidentally moving, neither of us could stop smiling. For around two hours the art table and live music brought this community so much joy.
Atelier was fortunate to have Hope Gwilliam and Becky Rawlins on team, co-founders of the surface pattern and screen-printing business Hopefully Made (Instagram: @hopefully_made). Hope had prepared a drawing of Caen on a huge piece of card and this was displayed on a painting easel at our gathering. The refugees were invited to come over to collaborate on finishing the artwork. One by one they would use their hands and the bright coloured paint provided to make their mark on the image of Caen. A series of fingerprints and handprints began to bring life and colour to the cityscape. It was a powerful display of the migrants’ vibrant, diverse and multilingual community reviving ruined cities across Europe. The creative process brought about a spirit of unity amongst the refugee community and between us and them. On the flip side, the artwork challenged us to consider the lost identities of many refugees, their fight to make an impression, achieve recognition and equality. I became acutely aware of our western dehumanization of individuals, how we often unjustly categorize and contrast people like block paint colours.
The childlike quality of the activity with the safety and fun it facilitated broke through all cultural, economic and social boundaries. Even more so when one of our Atelier team brought over her one-year old baby called Judah to make a painted footprint on the artwork! The mother, Rinke Verkerk, is a journalist from the Netherlands, who has worked with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, publishing ‘Anything out of nothing’ (2015) to report many refugees’ stories directly. I was inspired by Rinke’s bravery to trust the refugees in Caen willingly with her vulnerable child. Her decision to bring Judah to our gathering was incredibly powerful, because it created an atmosphere of trust and community between us and the migrants. As I and others carried Judah around, many of the refugees would excitedly come over to say hi and shake hands with him. The baby’s presence taught us so much – he greeted the refugees without apprehension or distaste and he saw no boundaries to love. He perfectly embodied what we championed that evening: creativity, childlike play and trust.
If you would like to donate to SOS CHAI or find out more about the Bless Network’s ministry to refugees, visit https://blessnet.eu/sos-chai/