Hi, it’s Alice here. So much of the current media is concerned with stories about the migration crisis. People from the Middle East and Africa are fleeing war torn countries, poverty, famine and oppressive regimes in search of a better life. Yet often they find themselves in similar dire situations either in refugee camps or on unwelcome shores.
Mostly the media represents migrants as simple a mass body of people or even as a problem. The personal stories of hardship, struggle and defiance are rarely heard. But the recent series, The Refugee Camp: Our Desert Home, on BBC Two, shone a new light onto the lives of refugees. It was a fascinating insight into life in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordon, home to some 80, 000 Syrians who have fled their war torn country. Zaatari is described as a city since it has hospitals, supermarkets, schools and its own water system. Residents work hard to maintain their Syrian traditions and cultures. Falafel stalls and bakeries have been opened, one man has started a wrestling club and large wedding ceremonies take place. The programme revealed the great strength of human spirit that manages to bring life and celebration to a horrendous situation.
This programme made me think about the research I am currently doing for the Kala Chethena Kathakali Company “Kathakali Meets Carnival Heritage Project” on the Indian migration to the Caribbean during the indenture system. Between the period 1838 to 1920, 500, 000 Indians migrated to the Caribbean to become indentured labourers on plantations that were previously worked on by African slaves. Of course, there are large differences between the circumstances of current Syrian refugees and 19th century Indian indentured labourers, nevertheless, there are evident similarities. Both Syrians and Indian are forced into enclosed areas, surrounded by people of the same nationality but not always from the same religion, class or community. In both cases, they have been forced to negotiate their cultures and traditions in new environments and having to learn how to live alongside others who might not share their own values.
The Indian indentured labourers were not fleeing war torn countries but many were trying to escape from a life of poverty and hardship. Recruiters in India used deceitful techniques, often misleading them about why they were departing and the wages they would receive in the Caribbean. They embarked on the three-month boat journey across the Pacific, full of hopes and expectations, only to suffer during a long and dangerous journey and then find themselves living and working in conditions worse than those they had left behind.
Again, with the stories of these Indian indentured labourers we can look at the figures, the death tolls and the percentages as a means to measure a crisis or a phenomenon. But like with The Refugee Camp: Our Desert Home it is important to also look at human experience. How do people cope with migration? What traditions and cultures do people bring with them to their new homes? How did the Indian indentured labourers keep their cultures alive in such alien and hostile environments? Were they forced to give up their traditions in order to survive or did they use their traditions in order to survive? These are interesting questions that I hope
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