British-Somali poet Warsan Shire once wrote, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”. These words could be a battle-cry of the pro-refugee movement, and since February 2017 are what Humanity House have been imprinting through their permanent exhibition ‘experience journey’ – or ervaringsreis.
This permanent exhibition, developed by the Dutch Red Cross-founded Humanity House team and a select group of artists, concurs with one of the staples of good writing: ‘show, don’t tell’. After entering our details into a computer we are equipped with identity documents, and then our ‘journey’ begins.
The Hague is under attack. We move through bombed-out rooms of discarded family portraits, magazines and familiar trappings of everyday life. The playing cards lay soaked in blood. We are corralled down tight passages with peepholes where footage of broken pavements and endless travellers are on inescapable repeat. It is a jolting experience, which climaxes in a room with a mirror reflecting everything except you – the temporary refugee. You do not exist.
We continue, placing our clutched ‘documents’ into a file. We have a ‘meeting’ with an immigration official, and then emerge – in tears, if you are sensitively inclined – to a room with pictures of reunited refugees taped to the walls. The scene is tempered somewhat by promotional evidence of the Red Cross’ emblem, but there are no charity collection buckets thrust immediately beneath your nose.
With our passports deposited, we are invited into rows of long, open huts. On each of the hut’s interactive touch-screens sit a refugee, either skating, reading or playing an enchanting Syrian harp known as a qanun. Using our fingers we can summon them for pre-arranged questions, such as ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Would you like to go back?’
“Yes”, replies Shazia, a lively young Syrian refugee. “I want to come to Europe as a student, not as a refugee.” Through each of the eight stories, however, runs the red thread of permanent transience; they cannot go back, and they can never belong.
A minute, perhaps an hour, of reflection may be required following this confronting experience. “This collective, staggering, saga is the most compelling in the world”, wrote the late critic A.A. Gill in a posthumous collection of journalism on refugees. Indeed, conflicting emotions of impotence and a giddy, quixotic desire to help everybody in the world welled up in me, until I went home and gave my mum a good back rub. Thank you for just being, here. Joshua Parfitt 19th December 2017