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Reflections on working with refugees

Hope Bachmann is nearing the end of her studies for a PhD in partnership with Opera North at the University of Leeds. Her thesis looks at building solidarity with refugees and sanctuary seekers through the arts.

In the latest in our Theatre of Sanctuary series of blog posts, written to mark Refugee Week 2024, we asked Hope to tell us more about her thoughts on the value of Opera North’s work in this area.

“To walk down university precinct early in the morning with the sun on my face before most students are up and awake. To order a flat white in my favourite coffee shop where the mugs warm my hands like a small hug. To sit on my back step and watch my daughter play with a bucket of rainwater and her sandpit. To people watch while I wait for a bus on The Headrow. When I think of home, and the city that I call home, I don’t think of words such as safety, security, or belonging. I have never really, not truly, felt their absence, and as a result I have never factored them into why I might feel a place feels like home or what I think of when I hear that word.

“In 2018 Opera North was awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status in recognition for their commitment and ongoing work to welcoming people seeking refuge in the city of Leeds. Over the past five years I have come to know Opera North intimately. I have worked closely with the Projects Team and watched their work evolve. I have worked with MAFWA Theatre and other groups and spoken at length with individuals who have lived experience of the asylum system, who have engaged with Opera North’s work.

Hope's PhD explores building solidarity with refugees and sanctuary seekers through the arts

“Opera North takes up a place of prestige in the public imagination. Rightly or wrongly so, opera and Opera North possess gravitas and evoke ideas of opulence and extravagance. There is a (mis)conception about the type of person who can and does go to opera, and it is this (mis)conception that plays such a surprisingly vital role in the work of solidarity that Opera North are committed to in their Theatre of Sanctuary work.

“Throughout my research, two key themes have come to the forefront: hospitality and membership. In an interview I conducted during my research period, an interviewee questioned why it had to be Opera North that did this work. Why couldn’t the Vue or Odeon give out free tickets to refugees and asylum seekers? Why was it important that Opera North did it? And this is a good question. It’s a question that I have been asking myself in my research: why Opera North? What is Opera North doing that is so special? Is it special? Is it important?

Opera North's 'Writing Home' workshop at Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network © Tom Arber

“When you are an individual seeking asylum in this country, you have nothing. You have no right to work and so you have no income. You live in a constant state of precarity and uncertainty. You are targeted by politicians and the media, painted as either a passive victim or a threat to society. Newspapers would have you believe that nobody wants you here, that you are feared, hated, a drain on society’s resources. You are treated by the authorities with no dignity, respect, or compassion. The impact that this has on wellbeing and mental health is profound. You have travelled all this way, fleeing persecution and risking your life for safety, to find no sanctuary on the other side.

“But then, an arts organisation invites you to attend one of their performances, and they offer you a free ticket. Not just any arts organisation, but Opera North. They visit a community group you frequent and you participate in their workshops. You start to trust them, anticipate them, feel that you know who this organisation is. You decide to go to the opera, and someone greets you at the door, smiling and welcoming, they show you to your seat.

The Men of the Chorus of Opera North performing at PAFRAS © Tom Arber

“I was deeply sceptical that the dissemination of free tickets was anything other than a hand wavy gesture at charity on behalf of Opera North when I started my postgraduate research. I’m not ashamed to admit that, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was very wrong. Out of all the work that Opera North do in their capacity as a Theatre of Sanctuary, it is the welcome that they offer in conjunction with these free tickets to performances that has such a profound impact on individuals. And before you ask, no, Odeon and Vue could not deliver that. Why? Because they are not Opera North.

“One of the recurring things that came up in my interviews was the impact that being invited into a building like the Grand Theatre, by a company like Opera North, had on individuals. The enormity of that identity, the Opera North identity, the gravitas it carries, the splendour it is associated with. It lifted people out of their everyday living and into the extraordinary. But more so than this, it countered ideas that these individuals were unwanted and unwelcome. Interviewees told me that as a result of the ongoing work they had engaged in with Opera North (workshops, performances, Whistle Stop Operas…) they had come to realise that it was not true that the people in those buildings hated them. Interviewees told me that attending an Opera North performance helped — for a time — restore their sense of self-worth and reminded them that they were no different from the other members of the audience.

Audiences at Leeds Grand Theatre © Tom Arber

“The political importance of this kind of work is more far reaching than may first seem obvious. The knock-on effect of individuals feeling welcome in a building such as the Grand Theatre as a result of an organisation like Opera North, empowered these individuals to feel that they could lay claim to New Briggate, and further afield to Leeds. It gave them a sense of belonging, it reminded them, and reinforced, that they too had a right to be part of this community, that they are a part of this community. That they are Leeds. Just like you. Just like me.”

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