We are Searching for Life: Stories and Reflections from Migrants and Refugees


Apr 8, 2020

By Salma Zulfiqar

We Are Searching for Life’ is a spoken performance telling the stories of migrants and refugees from several African countries as well as Syria and Iran.

‘Women on the run,

women with no voice

women with no choice.’

Migrants’ treacherous journeys have made headlines for years They make headlines and then they are gone, pushed away by other urgent matters. But these numbers don’t refer to matters, they speak of desperate humans who lost their fight in the struggle for survival. Sometimes headlines turn into breaking news. In October 2019, when the UK media reported that 39 Vietnamese migrants were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex, UK, many of them were women. In the same month, at least 13 African women died when a boat capsized in Lampedusa, Italy.

But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, and in the last five years, no less than 19,000 people have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean (1,071 in 2019 alone). They died at sea when the European Union forbade them from stepping foot on the continent. Or because they leave their countries on empty promises and are given just enough fuel to reach the middle of the ocean where no one is waiting for them.  Others die in detention centers, at borders, in jails or in the belly of smothering food trucks.

Then, for those who do manage to reach safety, come the challenges of exile. Stripped of everything that identified them, migrants are faced with rejection and ignorance.

This spoken-word performance is based on stories from refugees I’ve been working with in Birmingham where I reside but also include the testimonies of people I have met over the past three years in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Chad and Cameroon while I worked for the United Nations. The plight of women has moved me the most. I vividly remember meeting Mona, a Somali refugee in the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2007. Her husband had left her and their three toddlers while he worked in Saudi Arabia, the youngest was 15 months old. To go to work Mona was forced to tie her children to the legs of a chair in the room where they lived. The children were alone all day while she earned the money to feed them and pay the rent. It was dangerous, basic survival.

I started the Migration project in 2017 to stop hate from spreading in communities and empower women. While I was born in the UK, I am the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who came to Birmingham over 50 years ago. I understand the struggle of getting to grips with a new culture when your parents are from a different place.

I’ve heard comments from people in my community and from those in power locally suggesting that working with refugees is “too difficult.” Or perhaps too foreign. I asked a group of refugees to contribute to the film by expressing their own struggles with Western culture.

At first there was reluctance – many said they weren’t confident enough to speak English and we only had a few days to prepare and train participants to feel comfortable in front of a camera before recording the performance.

When the nascent poets saw the film though, they were stunned and most said that creativity had helped boost their self-esteem and released some of their pain.

‘’It was an empowering experience. Now I see that I have a future in digital work,” Eli said.

When I first met Eli in 2018, a budding filmmaker and photographer told me how she fled Iran in fear for her life. She spent two nights sleeping rough in a UK airport before she was taken into a hostel by the Red Cross. She left Iran after family members helped her buy a plane ticket and escape.

A refugee family from Afrin in Syria is also featured in the film. They fled the ongoing conflict that has killed thousands and devastated the lives of those who survived. Hefa showed me photos of the palace-like home she used to live in and then a photo of a pile of rubble, showing what her home had been reduced to. “We live in a very small house now, the walls are bare and we don’t have much furniture, but I will do my best to make it nice” she tells me. She and her husband Ramadhan arrived in the UK a year ago with their 3 young children, Silva, Lila and Muhammed who have been enrolled in school and are still trying to make friends and settle in while learning English.

The poem was performed in the UK House of Lords in June 2019 to lobby and push the issue of protecting refugees in the House of Commons despite strong political resistance.

This film is to foster an empathy that seems under threat.

Salma Zulfiqar is an award-winning International Artist and Peace Activist.