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Creative Writing Workshops With Refugees

By Maria Tetradi, creative expression workshops facilitator The Language Project

“Look at this window. You know it very well, don’t you? This is a window from your future home, your future workplace, your future university campus.” This is how I introduced my first creative writing workshop in a community centre for adult refugees on Leros island.

In my experience as an English teacher for adult refugees, I have noticed my students’ need to narrate their personal stories.  Every time I give them a writing assignment regardless of the topic, I would receive 1-2 pages from some students describing the difficulties they faced during their journey from their homeland to Greece.  It was after reading several assignments that it dawned on me: Why not attempt an introductory creative writing class to bring out both the hidden writing skills and the stories lying beneath the surface? Why not expose to new ways of telling their stories from different perspectives, and so encourage them to practise English in a more creative way? And, more important, where do I start?

Writing can be an act of healing as it encourages the writer to examine one’s experience from a place of distance and perspective.  When I started forming the workshop, my ambition was to foster a safe and a non-judgemental environment for the refugees to tell their own stories.  However, first times are always hard. What kind of prompts or topics would I choose? How could I enable my students to overcome the language barrier and feel the liberating experience of writing? Where would this mental journey take them? How could I encourage them to express not only the hard parts of their journey, but also their hopes  for a better future?

The first prompt featured a drawing of a window with questions triggering their imagination and encouraging them to  observe the details outside the window that they knew very well, but they have never seen yet. A window from their future when they eventually manage to leave the hotspot and start their new lives. The group consisted of around 12 adults residing in  Leros hotspot originating from different countries. They had never tried a creative writing course before. I tried to give them plain instructions and avoid limiting their options by giving too many examples. I wanted to know what they really saw from that window. Some of them were intermediate or advanced english speakers and they were eager to attempt  to write in English and some replied to the questions in their native languages. At first they were reluctant, but as soon as they started writing, it got easier to observe the imaginary details that would form their story from the perspective of somebody staring at the view of a future window.

I was so delighted to read the outcomes of this exercise. Some were simple and realistic but could enable you to get a glimpse of their hopes for the future. Some writings illustrated the darkness of their past experiences and some were funny. Then I asked the students for feedback. How did they feel while writing and after? Would they try creative writing again?  Their faces lit while discussing the exercise. One of them said that he couldn’t believe how easily he started writing when he put the pen on the paper and another that he felt that he could really see from the window of his future house for a moment. Their writings from the first workshop were featured in a real window pane during an Art Exhibition held at The Hub, in Leros.

After my first experience, I have repeated the creative writing workshop in different groups, using different techniques, such as picture prompts for monologues and dialogues and acrostic poetry with more confidence each time. The students who have attended the workshops reported that not only they had improved their English language but they have also  felt a sense of ownership and satisfaction. Through their writing, they created something that was only theirs and they were able to make their own big decisions; something that is not an option to them in their new reality as they wait to receive their asylum decision and their geographical restriction to be lifted.

In one of our most recent workshops, I introduced the “Love letter to an inanimate object” technique and I asked my students to write a love letter to an object they carried with them during their journey or to one they have left behind. During the workshop, we discussed how they could narrate their own story by using object personification.  An inanimate object would now be the centre of their narrative and their loving words towards it would reveal their own story from a different perspective. The objects they chose varied from their university books to a pair of shoes and a painting. Each love letter unveiled their unique past experiences, dreams and hopes left behind. You can read some of their letters on the Zine, a collection of personal essays, art, and poems by refugees published by Echo100Plus.

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