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Refugee Week marked in Parliament with exhibition featuring portraits of refugee women

4 min read

Refugee Week is being celebrated in Parliament with a special artistic exhibition of portraits featuring refugee women from around the world.

The ‘Tears of Gold’ exhibition was launched on World Refugee Day, 20 June, in Upper Waiting Hall, where the works by British artist Hannah Rose Thomas will be on display throughout the week.

The portraits include displaced women and girls from Syria, Iraq, Myanmar and Nigeria, plus new paintings of three female Afghan judges, and a mother and daughter who have come to the UK from Ukraine.

MP Rehman Chishti and artist Hannah Rose Thomas

Rehman Chishti, the Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham who hosted the launch event, told The House: “I first met Hannah Thomas, the brilliant artist who has helped put this exhibition together, when I was the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, taking forward religious freedom as a top priority for the United Kingdom and government.

“Policy-makers do a brilliant job of highlighting with words what the challenges are. But being able to highlight the challenges and the persecution individuals are facing through art is something amazing. When I met Hannah, I wanted to be able to do something constructive to promote her work.”

He added: “Women’s rights and religious freedom is a top priority for parliamentarians across the House. It’s then: how do we continue to make sure we have that spotlight across the board? Ukraine is absolutely crucial… but at the same time, the challenges in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Nigeria with the effects of Boko Haram, haven’t gone away.”

Alongside each work of art is a message about the woman depicted and her story. The youngest in the portraits, Florence, is said to have been 10 when she was raped by Fulani herdsmen.

The girl, aged 12 when she met the artist, is quoted as saying: “I was sleeping in the room with my grandmother when they came and raped me. Honestly speaking, from that time on I cry a lot and I don’t find anything that makes me happy.”

Others who appear in the portraits are teenagers, including 19-year-old Nazu, who has not seen either of her parents since ISIS separated them and she was sold to an ISIS soldier. She managed to escape.

The young Yezidi refugee is quoted in the exhibit label as saying: "The last thing my mother said to me before Daesh separated us was 'please don't kill yourself'."

The three judges from Afghanistan are named as Ferozan, Zuhal and Alia, but visitors are asked not to take photographs of their portraits to protect the safety of the women, as well as their loved ones who are living under Taliban rule.

Charity director Krish Kandiah, who organised the launch, talked about the Homes for Ukraine scheme. He said: “I believe in something called the power of proximity. A connection has been made between families. When that connection happens, suddenly people are willing to fight.”

Kandiah explained: “Many of our families from Ukraine need to sign on and get their benefits at a job centre. Many families who have never been anywhere near a job centre are now visiting a job centre and realising welfare in this country doesn’t work.

“Soon, [Ukrainian families’] six-month stay is going to come to an end. Guess what? Many people who don’t really understand this are going to discover that our social housing systems aren’t working… Lots of people who might vote Conservative are going to be on the phone to their MP saying ‘can you fix social housing?’.”

He added: “I want to see more people come forward to welcome refugees into their homes – not just from Ukraine. Wonderful people from Afghanistan, South Sudan, Eritrea also need homes. But we’ve seen something powerful happen that I think could change our nation. It could be a tipping point.”

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