young refugee tracing a boat against a window

For so many people, art is a means of expressing how we feel about the world. In this respect, the young refugees adjusting to life in Kent are no different to the rest of us.

Selassie and Helen are two young refugees from Eritrea. They arrived in the UK alone, travelling from the Calais ‘Jungle’. Both are seeking asylum after traumatic experiences.


I meet the talkative pair at a Red Cross young refugee project in Gravesend, Kent.

The centre teaches life skills as many young refugees struggle to adapt to life in the UK and wait for months before they enrol in school or college.

Sessions focus on simple things like cooking and good hygiene. Last week, three groups competed to make a bed in record time.

Today, the room feels particularly busy. There are paints on the table, and two of the young people are standing in the light of a window tracing photos on to paper.

fragile planet

Rob Lloyd is the Red Cross project coordinator. “We’re trying to get young people involved in art and trying something new,” he says. “And they get an award from a recognised national scheme.”

Rob explains how their life experiences shape the art they produce. For example, many pictures are of journeys through the Libyan Desert, or across the Mediterranean.

“Most of the young people find it hard to express themselves in English,” he says.

“At first, they find it hard to know what to draw. They only draw flags at school. It was a while before we had drawings that weren’t flags.”

Communicating through art

Selassie and Helen are sewing a badge on to a life jacket. It’s a piece the group are working on together.

“You know, art is a short way to explain something,” says Selassie. “But it’s also difficult to understand.

“Everybody came from Libya by sea so [this is] about safety for the people. I’m here now because of the life jacket.”

He lifts his head from stitching a badge and looks out the window.

lifejacket-1

“You travel by boat in the sea for three days. And after three days you start to think that no one can help you,” he says.

“The boat is starting to sink down and everyone starts to drown. Just the people who have got life jackets survive.

“It gives me a bad feeling because I remember. I remember all those people who didn’t have life jackets.”

  • Exodus, an art exhibition showcasing the work produced by this youth group and others in Kent, is now open at the Huguenot Museum in Rochester. The exhibition will run in London at a venue to be confirmed in the New Year.
  • The British Red Cross is the largest provider of support to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
  • Names have been changed to protect identities.

Photos: Lee Jones/British Red Cross.