We hosted art club for the first time in the newly-renovated refugee centre two weeks back. It wasn’t quite the way we had envisaged it – no grand opening party, masks and hand disinfectant everywhere, and social distancing meaning the ladies could not hug or kiss one another in greeting.
But it has been a joy to welcome them to the space we developed and brought together for their (and other people who are refugees’) sake. There were delighted comments with words like ‘beautiful’, ‘calm’, ‘peaceful’, ‘restful’. One young woman who is a fashion designer Instagrammed our decorations. Children squealed with excitement as they made their way up to the loft, which has been set up as a play space. A number of the ladies insisted on taking their shoes off, even though we do not require that. “We must,” they said. “This is like our home, and in our homes, we don’t wear shoes.”
There have been times when we wondered about the wisdom of spending so much time on interior decoration. Sure, when we took possession of the building which is now the centre, it was a bit of a dump and it needed a lot of work! But was it really necessary to expend time and resources on sourcing things like floor cushions for a lounge-room sitting space, or armchairs and plants for the library corner?
The value of making a place which feels safe and inviting can’t be underestimated. During the many stops on journeys of displacement, people who are refugees inhabit various places which don’t really belong to them – a canvas tent, a tiny apartment, a schoolroom in an unknown language, bland government offices. These places may be necessary, but they are usually places where people who are refugees are merely tolerated.
At the centre, we wanted people to feel like this was their space – a close friend’s home, a place they can get a cup of tea, relax on the couch, and chat with someone close to them. When we begin our activities, we often introduce the centre as a gift from the international church community to people living in our city as refugees. It gives us so much joy when we see this gift in action, when our friends at art club say things like, “I just feel so at peace here today.”
Joel and Erin* are long-term Interserve Partners.
They live and work in West Asia.
*Names have been changed.