Stories that have never been told: refugee kids and an artist beyond words

Rasmus Sørinus Jensen is a Danish dancer, choreographer and filmmaker. Over the last five years he travelled throughout the Middle East with a Danish programme which engages children all around the world in storytelling in order to connect with each other. Jensen’s work aimed to encourage children in refugee camps to express themselves, adjust to their new (and likely to be temporary) environment and release tension and stress accumulated throughout their draining journeys. In short, Jensen’s job was to encourage these children to dance and – as I learned during my interview with him below – much more than that. From singing, to telling stories and making a film, the initial dance-project grew into a multidisciplinary and socially intriguing endeavour.

What inspires a Nordic artist to travel to Middle East and start to dance with children in a refugee camp?

The whole ICRE project is about letting the children make their voices heard by their own stories. So I travelled with a group of six members, out of which two were dancers, and four trained and experienced teachers ─ especially in handling children in sensitive situations like this. First, we enquired a lot of children in refugee camps throughout Scandinavia to find out whose stories they want to hear. We asked them to spot on the Earth (a huge beach ball-globe) the next place they wanted to hear the children’s stories from. The vast majority voted for the Middle East, plus, my origin points back to that part of the world, so I was really eager to set up that team and see if there is any bit I could understand of those harsh conflicts over there.

Where did you visit refugee camps and how should we imagine your everyday work in there?

Refugee camps along the border of Jordan and Israel and Gaza were the main spots of my attention. In the first two places we visited camps are as big as Aarhus (roughly 250 thousand inhabitants), but sometimes it happened that we arrived for three months’ work to a camp of 600,000 refugees which increased to 1.1 million inhabitants by the time we left. The biggest difficulty was – strikingly enough – to reach out to the children and inform them that we were about to hold some dance workshops for them. After a short while we realised that we had to be prepared for the worst facilities and the weakest infrastructure. For example, there was not enough paper in the camp to make announcements about our work – after a while we simply rushed along the streets with loudspeakers yelling out to the world that we would hold a workshop. We also had on the agenda making pedagogically long, prepared interviews with the children, but rarely could we get any help with translation. Sometimes we were simply told (by authorities) that there is no interpreter we could work with, but often we did not get any help in spite of their former promises.

Rasmus Sørinus Jensen. Photo supplied by Rasmus.

Rasmus Sørinus Jensen. Photo supplied by Rasmus.

And in cases you managed to talk to the children, what were the stories they told you? Did you ask them about their hardships and past experiences?

Our approach is to help them create and articulate a vision of their future, to focus on their plans – and their plans coincide exactly with the dreams of any other children in the world: they want to become lawyers, doctors, whatever any other child longs to be. If an overwhelming past event occurred in their accounts, we would make a note about it and inform the camp leaders and guides to deal with those past traumas. But basically our aim was to take care of that sensitive bubble of their dreams of the future as this would supply them with emotional strength; this is most important in spite of the fact that their life was, and probably will be, precarious and unforeseen.

What about the dance? How could movement facilitate their well-being in the camp-life?

There were teenagers of 14-15 who have never danced before, who were not used to expressing themselves through movements. To give way to emotions by not using words, only movements of the body, often can have a healing effect on children who endured hard times. So instead of making them speak and re-live the most painful experiences of their lives, dance might trigger a release of stress and experiences that would have been hard to talk about.

How could you reach out to Gaza?

In my conception the main purpose would have been to make a sort of mapping of the camps and create a virtual neutral platform by this. There was an instance when we could talk via skype with children from Gaza – a very surrealistic experience, the only way to get close to them. The connection was made between a refugee camp from Denmark and a school from Gaza. The kids here at our end (in Denmark) were at least one or two years younger than the Gaza adolescents of around 14-15. According to prior agreement first they sang on both sides and then I asked if they had time and were in the mood to talk a little. They agreed, so the kids from our part actually interviewed the Gaza children about their lives. Most of them were already born there and raised with the idea of closeness and the physical barrier of the wall surrounding them. A kid from the Danish camp proposed them to break out of these circumstances, to make a riot. At that moment the Skype was interrupted, and a couple of minutes later when the connexion was restored we saw around six sober teachers from Gaza staring at us. We were asked to pose only questions that would not disturb the discipline and would not trespass their cultural barriers. Getting to know that around 10% of the Gaza kids can attend school, and very few will finish secondary education, I had to admit that those were the lucky ones we had the chance to talk to, and decided not to act against their will – regardless if these barriers in their communication were artificially created or not.

Before I came here to talk to you I saw a sorrowful and shocking dance film – entitled The Selection on this topic.

Actually, The Selection’s initial Danish title is The Choice and it was inspired by the story of a Romanian girl – but actually it is a metaphor and a memorial for all migrant children who travel unaccompanied throughout the world and never reach their supposedly happy destination.

Unaccompanied refugee or migrant children are those who lost their parents on the roads of migration?

Most of the children who arrive for example in Scandinavia unaccompanied are those whose families, in their desperate hope to offer at least their kids a happier future, gather all their little fortune and offer it to so-called agents who would take their children in safety to Scandinavian adopting parents. Supposedly. This is what happened to this Romanian girl as well, who was taken against her will to Norway – of course, a victim of human trafficking ─ being crammed with many other kids in a truck, without official papers, and ending up enduring tortures and abuse. Though the parents of these children are alive and they hope that the kids live happily in settled and wealthy families, because of the painful experiences the children go through, being shocked and struck by shame and fear, they would typically not contact their families, so we can say that they are, in fact, orphans. And in addition to this, they are mostly thrown out in the streets, under the bridges, after being forced into slavery or sexually abused. Generally, 60% of the children end up in the streets or in sweatshops or forced into prostitution. Only 20% reach out to refugee camps – they are the lucky ones.

And what happens to those 20% left?

They cannot make it. They will never arrive at their destination, but die by the torture and abuse they have to endure during their way.

Out of thousands of stories of these children, why did you choose the one of the Romanian girl?

Her brother photographed her while she was taken away from the family, against her will. Later on, the family was informed that she arrived safely, so they decided to send out the boy as well. He was lucky enough to make it – I am still in contact with him – and kept calling me and insisting about the story of his sister.

The film you made is one in which very aesthetic dance movements and pictures are altered and were sometimes combined with rigid depictions of empty halls, aggression and butchered human bodies covered in blood. There is no need for explicit story-telling to understand what happens.

I believe in movements and pictures that can take the place of words where nothing is left to be said – or where there would be no words to describe the actual happenings. On the other side, I promised to my young friend that I would not divulge the actual story of his sister.

How old was she when she was taken away by the smugglers?

Nine.

She must have been one of those who actually never arrived.

No, she has never arrived.

 

Rasmus Sørinus Jensen and Edhem Jesenkovic traveled with their own dance company VARQ DE ALVO together with the ICRE program through Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and most of Eastern Europe. Jensen acknowledges the support of the “Community Arts Centre” (Copenhagen) and the “ICRE program” (Denmark).

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