Mental Health and Forced Migration - Challenges, Needs and Taking Action

Sophie Dowden
Grid of portraits of 8 artists supported by Artists at Risk Connection.

An interview with Manojna Yeluri, Asia Regional Representative, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (On the Move member) by Freelance Culture Expert Sophie Dowden

In what kinds of circumstances are artists forced to cross borders?

We closely examine the prism of societal instability and socio-political risks, which forms the focal point of our efforts within PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) program. Forced migration consistently emerges as one of the primary concerns for artists facing threats. These concerns encompass a spectrum of reasons, broadly classified into two distinct categories:

  1. Situations where there is a very obvious conflict that has arisen in a particular region, for instance, civil unrest, civil war, cross-border conflict, and aggression, due to which the country or the region is no longer safe to house anyone. Artists are among those who are forced to leave their homes in search of a safer place.
  2. Another form of forced migration we frequently encounter is directly related to artists’ artistic freedom. This pertains to hostile situations where artists find themselves targeted because of who they are and what they do, especially in countries with authoritarian governments. The persecution, harassment, and/or threats they experience can come from the state, as well as non-state actors. This vulnerability may stem from an artist’s individual experiences or could extend to artists who belong to communities with a documented history of persecution. The reasons behind such threats can be diverse, ranging from the artist’s chosen creative medium to a combination of factors such as ethnicity, historical background, orientation, or language.

The deeper you get into it, the more complex it becomes, but it all boils down to the fact that most of the time, artists have to leave because they no longer feel safe in a place they used to call home.

What kind of impact does forced migration have on artists?

It’s very layered and something we’re really trying to unpack, largely because there isn’t a lot of literature that focuses on the lived and mental health experiences of artists who have had to relocate due to forced migration. It’s not even just about relocation, but also artists may be struggling with the idea that they need to relocate.

To contribute to the growing body of literature on the subject, ARC dedicated an entire section of our most recent report, Método Cuba: Independent Artists’ Testimonies of Forced Exile, to exploring the various challenges of forced exile. The insights shared by the 17 Cuban artists and cultural professionals interviewed alluded to experiences similar to those reported by other migrant groups, namely, diverse psychosocial, economic, and creative hurdles that complicate their integration abroad. The complete uprooting of one’s creative network, the underlying scars of a repressive past, and the generalized precarity confronted by migrant artists of all nationalities underscored a marginalization wholly detrimental to the revitalization of one’s artistic oeuvre.

There is always trauma involved because of a sense of ostracisation and isolation. Artists tend to endure a loss of identity because they’re no longer able to call their home “home” anymore. There can be an identity conflict between what’s happening back home and what’s happening now around them. Forced migration then becomes a commonly raised topic that flows into their creative practice and artworks.

However, many artists who relocate don’t have the opportunity to continue their creative practice, most likely because of the geopolitical situation or the socioeconomic dynamics in the countries from which they’ve relocated. This is something we’re really concerned about at ARC because we want to ensure artists and creative practitioners can continue their creative practice, if they choose.

Many artists are deeply involved in social justice movements in their countries. In our report, Art Is Power: 20 Artists on How They Fight for Justice and Inspire Change we spotlighted 20 artists who have used their creative talents to uplift, sustain, and mobilise social and political movements globally. They could be labelled as human rights defenders, cultural rights defenders, or activists. Once socially-engaged artists relocate, they must ask themselves: do we still hold onto that label? Do we move on from there? And if we move on, then is that evolving into a different form of advocacy?

A lot of artists who relocate do take up advocacy as a cause, even if they hadn’t previously. For instance, there are a lot of diaspora artists who believe that they are now in a privileged place to advocate for the situations back home, so one response is to get even more immersed.

On the other hand, there are some artists who are simply happy that they finally have the opportunity to focus on their creative practice. They feel safe, they feel like they have access to resources, a community that is not only supportive but also engaging in these art forms as well, so they prefer to take the opportunity to refocus and reorient themselves creatively.

Overall, the majority of the time, there’s a sense of loss. A lot of artists who relocate don’t have the opportunity to relocate with their entire family, so they’re usually relocating on their own and feel very lonely. That is one aspect of relocation that ARC has been trying to remedy as well.

What do artists in these situations need?

When it comes to artists’ needs, it varies a lot, depending on their personal situation, their new host country, and their cultural background. There are some universal elements that we see, like a need for community, and a need for networks, both personal and professional. There is this profound desire for a lot of artists and cultural workers to reconnect to their work, by continuing their artistic practice.

But unless an artist has had the privilege of moving to a place they already have a connection to - and that isn’t always the case - then they’re really starting from scratch, so it’s about trying to find access to resources and connect them to a new and engaged professional environment. In response to these challenges, this October, ARC launched our project’s first-ever fellowship, the Cuban Migrant Artists Resilience Fellowship. A cohort of 10 artists are provided a resilience grant to undertake an artistic project, coupled with professional development opportunities. We feel this to be a crucial step forward in addressing artists’ needs while simultaneously empowering them to create freely and in a community.

Then, it’s a matter of finding very specific psychosocial support mechanisms and resources and having access to them. It is very important for us as potential partners to try and find the right kind of psychosocial support because an artist can’t have just any therapist stepping in. An artist needs somebody who has worked with artists with these kinds of experiences, and preferably someone from a similar, if not the same, cultural background.

How does ARC offer support?

In the protection work of ARC, we’re able to engage with threatened artists directly. Every day, we receive inquiries from artists and cultural workers from across the world. These requests for assistance can drastically increase when there is a conflict. ARC primarily serves as a central coordinator to assist artists around the world, improving artists’ protection mechanisms every day. We’re connectors: we play the critical role of connecting at-risk artists and cultural professionals from all countries and disciplines to resources available across ARC’s global network of 800+ partner organisations, providing emergency funds, fellowships, and legal support, among other types of assistance. We work on a regional hub model, so while our main office is based in New York, there are other representatives like myself, my colleagues in Latin America, Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

We aim to identify and connect the dots between our regional partners from the human rights world and the cultural rights world with artists who find themselves in distressing situations, and play the role of matchmaker for the artists who contact us by filling out this encrypted form that’s available on our website. We also invite artists to read the Safety Guide for Artists, which is quite accessible to almost everyone and we’re working on making it even more accessible through various language and regional adaptations.

We’ve been conducting several regional closed virtual workshops, bringing together different stakeholders from the region, for example, from the human rights world, the art world, the curatorial world, artists who identify as activists as well as those who don’t, individuals who run residency programs, resources that offer psychosocial assistance, and so on. Through these initiatives, we aim to identify what key stakeholders (from the cultural and human rights domains) feel are some of the major regional challenges and see how we can highlight possible solutions and strategies. It’s been a great way for us to identify the gaps in the field and try through partnerships with regional organisations to fill them.

More recently we have been able to provide further assistance through ARC’s Global Emergency and Resilience grants which accept submissions from at-risk artists. These grants offer assistance for a number of situations, and are open to cultural workers, curators, and artists who have experienced censorship and persecution from state and non-state actors.

What advocacy does ARC carry out?

On the advocacy side of things, ARC works with several partners and organisations, such as On the Move, and we work closely with different international bodies such as the UN, OAS, EU and UNESCO. We have a great functioning relationship with the UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights and UNESCO. All of this helps us with a lot of policy-level advocacy, being able to speak to different current issues that are being addressed in the UN. Recently, we’ve achieved significant progress through our collaborative advocacy efforts at UNESCO. Our focus has been on emphasising the importance of building upon the 2005 Convention, led and mandated by UNESCO, to introduce a UN Action Plan for the Protection of Artists and Cultural Professionals. Drawing inspiration from the UN Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists, this proposed plan aims to officially recognize artists as a vulnerable group and ensure the protection of artistic freedom. It seeks to delineate the responsibilities of states for their own citizens–especially those at risk–and when hosting artists in similar situations.

We also react to a number of different cases and instances as a more accessible and media-friendly approach. We release press statements, sign-on letters with our partners, and spearhead social media campaigns in an attempt to use all the tools in our advocacy toolbox. We have seen these campaigns offering solidarity and creating impact with cases such as the release of Iranian dissident musician, Mehdi Yarrahi who was detained earlier this year in connection with his pro-democratic efforts and protest music, “Your head scarf.”

How can organisations or individuals support ARC’s work?

To get involved with our work, one can start by following us on social media at ‘AtRiskArtists’ on every platform. Our socials serve as a powerful tool to amplify advocacy cases, showcase our partner’s initiatives, spotlight courageous artists worldwide, but above all, it’s one of the many ways artists can contact us when they’re being persecuted.

There are numerous ways to get involved. Institutions and organisations keen on collaboration can contact us directly. Stay updated through our socials or quarterly newsletter. We’re actively developing projects and seeking collaboration; reach out to any ARC team member via email to express your desire for deeper engagement. We value and welcome your help and interest.

How do you look after your own mental health when your work entails engaging with such complex and distressing situations?

Within the PEN America family, various teams grapple with issues tied to free expression and its limitations. These discussions, as you can imagine, are not always easy or pleasant. Our team, which operates internationally with many remote members, is closely-knit despite the geographical dispersion. Dealing with these challenging topics takes a toll, prompting us to prioritise a supportive environment. We recognize the mental toll of our work. We actively engage in open conversations about our feelings, conducting weekly check-ins to gauge each team member’s workload and find ways to support one another. Though we continue to learn and evolve, fostering a culture that prioritises mental well-being is integral to our collaborative efforts.

We also have access to support from the organisation. We have an excellent counsellor who regularly offers sessions for all of PEN America’s employees. Anyone on the ARC team is welcome to request a one-on-one session as well, which can be very, very helpful, especially when you find yourself on the tail end of a crisis and you’re just overwhelmed.

Personally, I’m actively working on establishing clear boundaries for myself. Compassion fatigue is a very, very real concern, and burnout is prevalent in roles like ours, given the challenging nature of the work. Setting realistic expectations for my capacity is crucial. I recognize that taking care of myself enables me to bring my best to the work. If I’m not okay, I won’t be able to effectively support others. Self-care is integral to fostering a supportive environment.

The publication of this interview on 14 December 2023 is part of On the Move members’ action on (en)forced mobility (see the description of the working group) and an upcoming Cultural Mobility Flow Report on Mental Health, Well Being and Cultural Mobility.