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This Paris program helps refugees tell their stories through art

For years, refugees from the Middle East and Africa have sought shelter in Europe, igniting debates there about immigration, asylum and changing culture. But one Paris program has been using the lens of art to help some of these refugees find community in France -- and to try to change the conversation around their plight. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Refugees from the Middle East and from Africa have been settling in Europe in recent years, igniting anti-immigrant tensions.

    But one program in Paris is helping some refugees find a new community in France through art.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from Paris.

    It's part of Canvas, our ongoing arts and culture coverage.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Portraits of migration, the troubles faced along the way, the trauma of making a new home.

  • Abdul Saboor:

    I'm from Afghanistan, but, sometimes, I say from nowhere.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Photographer Abdul Saboor experienced it himself. In Afghanistan, he says, he worked in transportation for the U.S. Army, but fled when the Taliban began threatening him and his family.

    During a harrowing two-year journey, part of it spent in an abandoned train station in Serbia, he began taking pictures with a donated camera.

  • Abdul Saboor:

    When I show to the people, I say, that's not normal, how we lived there.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His photographs became a bridge to overcome language and other barriers and raise awareness about the plight of refugees, which he continues to do in Paris.

  • Abdul Saboor:

    After the people published the pictures, and they did some exhibitions, people was asking, what you guys need? And they were sending some support. And then I say, it's really important.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Saboor is one of some 200 refugee artists from more than 40 countries now getting support from the Agency of Artists in Exile.

    On our visit to its makeshift building off the Seine River, an Ethiopian man belted out a traditional song with accompaniment from this phone. Across the hall, a Yemeni woman used her vast trail of official asylum-seeking papers, accumulated over two years of navigating France's legal process, to create an art installation.

  • Aram Tastekin (through translator):

    It was my first week in France and the first day without documents.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And a Kurdish actor who fled Turkey practiced a monologue about his first days in Paris.

  • Judith Depaule:

    Can you imagine to leave your country tomorrow and to leave everything?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Judith Depaule is director of the studio, which opened in 2017 with funding from the French Ministry of Culture.

  • Judith Depaule:

    In the beginning, you are, like, in the state of shock.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When you arrive here, you're in shock.

  • Judith Depaule:

    Right, yes, because nobody wants you there.

    It's difficult. You have to do a lot of papers. You don't understand nothing. And it's like — I don't know. It's like a panic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Like many countries in the West in recent years, France has struggled with rising tensions over an influx of refugees.

    President Emmanuel Macron has sought to criminalize illegal border crossings, while tightening restrictions on asylum, even as far-right parties in the country call for more.

    But France also has a long tradition of being a sanctuary for artists, including Pablo Picasso and James Baldwin. The idea here was to give artists a place to connect with one another, to work on and exhibit their crafts, and to help with all the practical challenges of living as a refugee.

  • Aram Tastekin (through translator):

    First of all, they helped us find a place to live. Secondly, they helped us get a work visa, find a lawyer. Some people needed psychologists, things like that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Kurdish actor and drama teacher Aram Tastekin fled Turkey in late 2017.

    So, why did you leave Turkey?

  • Aram Tastekin (through translator):

    Because it's complicated living there. I'm a conscientious objector. I am anti-military. I'm an artist who tries to make art and theater in the Kurdish language, to protect the Kurdish language.

    But when we make Kurdish art or theater, they always say it is terrorist propaganda. And that really hurts. How can a language be terrorist propaganda?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In 2018, graffiti artist and painter Ahlam Jarban fled her native Yemen amid its years-long civil war. She says she faced added persecution for her family's Somali and Ethiopian roots and for her wanting to be an artist as a woman.

    She left everyone and everything behind, and says she still doesn't know if it was the right decision.

  • Ahlam Jarban:

    Because, all of us, we are we are without our families. So we feel lonely. We feel — there is a lot of problem.

    But when we are together, when we speak, when we share this story, it makes us a little less stressed, make us little — keep fighting. So it is good to have this place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This place, though, the Agency of Artists in Exile, is experiencing its own problems. It depends on Paris' city government for free work space, and has already had to move twice. The building we visited is small and temporary, and the future is uncertain.

  • Director Judith Depaule:

  • Judith Depaule:

    To find the place now, it's a very real, concrete problem.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To further make its case and showcase its artists, the agency recently presented its third annual month-long festival titled Visions of Exile.

    Amid the national and even global fights over immigration, this is a small project. But those being helped think art can change the way people think.

  • Ahlam Jarban:

    Because when they see our artwork, they don't see it as a refugee. This see it as artist, and artist make this thing.

    We do all this journey to be something. We have hope, and we are human before we come — we are a refugee.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Paris.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wonderful story.

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