The atmosphere is heavy in the emergency housing facility (Centre d’hébergement d’urgence) in Ivry-sur-Seine, near Paris, where EMMAUS Solidarité hosts 430 people – families, single women and children alike. The Jungleye association organized a workshop where fifteen women aged 26 to 60 were invited to express themselves. They come from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Bangladesh, Tibet, the Ivory Coast, Chad, or Romania, and are all going through the asylum procedure in Paris.
In the ten days of the workshop, our association explored with these women the portrait medium. The participants created facial composites, using in their own way the model of police sketches. Cutting down into pieces and rearranging photos of their faces, they created new ones as a homage to all the women victims of crimes and sexual abuse. Crumpled paper stands in the background.
“What is this shining paper”, Branni, a young Ethiopian woman, asks me as I am setting up the photo studio. Aminata, who came from the Ivory Coast with her daughter Yasmine shouts: “This looks like some paper I was using back home to wrap my daughter’s birthday presents”. This glittering paper also means a specific day for her – the day on which the “big boat” came to rescue Aminata, her five-month old baby and the hundreds of other people with her, as they were drifting off the Libyan coast on a dinghy. The survivors felt like they were being rolled into in some gift wrap. She explains: “They gave us a gift when they wrapped us in this glittering paper that felt warm – they gave us life.”
Our conversation has now started and so has the workshop. For Pema, a woman from Tibet, the colour of this first aid blanket is associated with Buddhist temples. She becomes nostalgic. She explains why she is with us today. Buddhists are repressed in Tibet. She had to flee her country to escape the persecutions of the Chinese army and protect her family.
At some point, we raise the issue of respect and I mention the recent #metoo movement. They start asking me questions: “What is a hashtag?.” A key word. What is #metoo, then? An awareness campaign to unite all the women that have been sexually abused and to let their voices be heard on the social media. Aminata says: “let’s not draw arbitrary lines. Men, too, are quite often raped and they are the ones who get shot for no reason. – She witnessed such situations in Niger and Lybia. – No one can escape the violence in exile. It’s true, though, that men or family pressure are often the reason why we run away from our land in the first place”.
Our workshop is inspired by art therapy and functions as a group therapy. Art becomes a psychological tool that initiates the healing of the inner self. Senses become awake, and these women of all ages and backgrounds look at each other and cry – with their eyes. They feel and breathe – with their noses. They listen and understand – with their ears. They shout and denounce – with their mouths.
This is a workshop dedicated to women. New, imperfect, faces have been created – bits and pieces that were pieced together. Around the eyes, along the lips, the shining paper has revealed some scars. They were made at home, in exile, and here.