“A river is crying

A river that once sang is weeping

It carries death it carries oblivion; who will listen

I leave my loved ones behind

I leave broken inside

I leave, constantly feeling that my strength will grow

That my strength will grow as the river grows.”

Surcos de amor (Furrows of love), by Marta Gómez

The number of people who currently have to leave their country because of threats to their lives is unprecedented since the Second World War.  In the last decade, there has been a steady increase in forced migration resulting from armed conflict, extreme violence, instability and political repression (1).  In 2021, there were 27.1 million refugees worldwide (more than double the 10.5 million under the United Nations mandate a decade ago) (2).  And this figure does not include many people who do not seek international protection and, statistically, are counted as migrants.

The impact of forced migration is manifold: victimization in the country of origin, difficulties of acceptance and adaptation in the host country, and the invisibility and lack of recognition that people in the diaspora, migrants and refugees have in their countries of origin.  These impacts are aggravated in the case of people with a history of social and political commitment, who, once in exile, lose their ability to influence and work to strengthen democracy and social justice.

In the case of women, this double identification as women and migrants causes them to be perceived socially and even politically as victims without agency.  In the face of this discourse, women must recognize themselves as agents of change and subjects of rights with their own voice and leadership.  There are countless examples of women who have known how to position themselves despite the unfavourable context.  Many have done so using art as a tool that allows them to promote dialogue and generate processes of personal and collective transformation while facilitating the dissemination and awareness of situations and contexts that are shocking and often complex and from which initiatives of resilience and resistance emerge.

We find experiences, for example, in Colombia, Syria and Ukraine.  Three diverse contexts: Colombia, a country where sixty years of armed conflict have caused more than a million people to go into exile (3); Syria, ten years after the beginning of the revolution and the civil war, is the country with the most refugees worldwide, with almost seven million people in 2021 (4); and finally, the most recent case of Ukraine, where 7.7 million people (5) have fled the country since the beginning of the Russian invasion, mainly women and children.

From these three contexts, we learned about specific experiences at the event entitled Women in the diaspora: The power of art in peacebuilding, which took place on 20 October.  This event was organized by ICIP in the framework of the Barcelona Biennial of Thought and featured the participation of María del Rosario Vásquez (Colombia), Lina Al (Syria) and Anna Slizinova (Ukraine).

Art as a builder of peace in Colombia, Syria and Ukraine

In the case of Colombia, the existence of a diaspora and exile that has been organized for decades has made possible the positioning of demands and proposals of the so-called “Colombia outside Colombia” during different moments of the ongoing peace process.  For example, with the support of ICIP in Europe, the Truth Commission of Colombia is the first truth commission in history to promote and guarantee the participation of victims and other Colombians living abroad.  In this process of creating a polyphonic memory, artistic tools such as theatre, music, and writing have been critical instruments for individual and collective healing and for explaining the history of the conflict through various means of expression.

The diaspora has also played a central role in the mobilization and organization of Syrian civil society.  Since before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, the Syrian diaspora has acted as a support group and catalyst for peacebuilding and human rights initiatives, leading the creation and establishment of organizations abroad.  This organized civil society in the diaspora has facilitated, for example, the process of documenting and reporting what has happened and is happening in the country.  Moreover, in the face of a complex conflict, in which for years much information has been disseminated without all the necessary context, Syrian migrants and refugees around the world have used documentary filmmaking, painting and sculpture to explain the conflict more comprehensively, from a different perspective, and directly addressing their audience.

In the case of Ukraine, after the Russian invasion on 24 February, Ukrainians abroad had to organize and respond quickly.  Constantly asking themselves, “What more can we do?” they voluntarily created networks to mobilize humanitarian aid and welcome refugees.  Music and solidarity concerts are essential tool to raise funds for these tasks, as well as to raise awareness of the situation that the country is going through.  These spaces have also generated synergies and joint work between people of Ukrainian and Russian origin who are against the invasion.

Examples like these show that we have before us the opportunity to recognize the potential and contributions of diasporas in the construction of inclusive and participatory peace processes, as well as to highlight and support innovative initiatives of social and political transformation.  Let’s take advantage of it.

[1] Miralles, Nora (2021). Women and Peacebuilding from the Diaspora and Exile in Europe. International Catalan Institute for Peace. https://www.icip.cat/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/informe19_ENG_1410.pdf

2 UNHCR (2022). Global Trends. Forced Displacement in 2021. https://www.unhcr.org/publications/brochures/62a9d1494/global-trends-report-2021.html

3 Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No Repetición (2022). “La Colombia fuera de Colombia. La verdad del exilio” a Hay futuro si hay verdad. Informe Final. https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/hay-futuro-si-hay-verdad

4 UNHCR (2022)

5 UNHCR. Ukraine Situation. https://reporting.unhcr.org/ukraine-situation Retrieved on 25 October 2022

Sílvia Plana Subirana, “Memory, coexistence and reconciliation” area of the ICIP.