In September, St Andrews Oxfam Society kicked off the academic year by hosting ‘Museum Without a Home’, a pop-up exhibition showcasing real objects donated by British and Greek people to refugees and asylum seekers who have been forced to flee their homes. The ‘Museum Without a Home’ began as an initiative by the Greek section of Oxfam and Amnesty International and found its first temporary home in museums across Athens. Since then, the exhibition has gained items given by people in the United Kingdom to recently arrived refugees and toured the world with events in the United States, Canada, and Ireland. The ‘Museum Without A Home’ first visited Scotland in 2018 when it was displayed in Glasgow, but Oxfam Society is proud to have organized St Andrews as the first Scottish university to host the exhibition.
The ‘Museum Without A Home’, which was held in a Society Room at the Union, displayed everyday objects like bracelets, a hairbrush, and children’s books. It included information about the refugee crisis and gave visitors a close examination of items that most of us would barely register throughout the course of a day. The vast majority of people who are fortunate enough to live in a warm, stable home do not think twice as they rush through their morning and absentmindedly pop on the kettle and hurriedly stow items in a backpack. But for refugees and asylum-seekers escaping violence and persecution, an object like a kettle, backpack or hair-brush is a small step towards making daily life manageable in a new environment and eventually making a new place feel like home.
Given the current climate surrounding refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, Oxfam Society President Alexandria Celli says she was excited to bring an exhibition to St Andrews that provides tangible evidence of the everyday experience of those who have been forced to flee their homes. In our small town, it can be all too easy to lose a global perspective in the face of humanitarian crises around the world. Inherent in the exhibition is recognition that it can be hard to feel connected to an issue affecting such an overwhelming number of people. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 70.8 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, including around 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers. These numbers start to feel more manageable in the face of the ‘Museum Without A Home’. When examining a children’s book that was given to a newly arrived refugee up close, you can imagine the comfort the book brought to a child being read a story by their parent despite the strange place they now call home.
“You can Imagine the comfort the book brought to the child”
The ‘Museum Without A Home’ is a way to remind us all of the comfort and security provided by simple items like a toy, bracelet, book or blanket when given to a newly arrived refugee. After a harrowing journey, a donation of a basic item given by a welcoming person in a new country far away from all that is familiar can mean the world. As Meghan O’Neill, Public Engagement Officer for Oxfam Scotland, said, “This exhibition is made up of everyday objects which all have a powerful story to tell of despair, terror and exhaustion, but also of warmth, hospitality and humanity.” The exhibition explores hospitality in a time of broadly negative rhetoric surrounding migration and hostile policies towards refugees and asylum seekers around Europe, and gives hope for how small acts of warmth and generosity can make a difference in the face of an overwhelming global crisis. By displaying seemingly mundane items in an exhibition, each person who views the objects in this formal context is given a moment to reflect on the hardships those who arrive in a new country as a refugee face as well as how much strength and resilience they have already shown on their journey to their new home.
One highlight of the exhibition was a visit by Stephen Gethins, MP for North East Fife, who visited the ‘Museum Without A Home’ and met with members of Oxfam Society. He said, “It is so important that the situation facing refugees across the globe continues to be high on the agenda; it is an issue close to my heart and one I spoke about in my Maiden Speech in Parliament. I am delighted that the University of St Andrews, in my constituency, is the first Scottish university to host the exhibition, and thanks to students in the Oxfam Society for taking this on and helping to raise awareness of the need for refugees to be supported.” The local MP went on to express his gratitude for local efforts promoting the situation refugees are facing. Gethins, who is also a member of the Foreign Affairs committee and SNP spokesperson for Foreign Affairs in Europe, touched upon his personal experience of visiting refugee camps in Turkey, Greece, and on the Syria-Lebanon border, saying, “I know that we must continue to offer a place of safety to those who, through no fault of their own, can no longer live in their own homes.”
“Everyday objects which all have a powerful story to tell”
He also reiterated his support for the Refugee (Family Reunion) Bill put forward by Western Isles MP Angus MacNeil. The bill, which passed its second reading in the House of Commons but has stalled since, calls for the UK Government to make sure refugee families are not separated by allowing refugee children to sponsor their close relatives to come to the UK. However, despite the bill’s lack of success, Scotland has an overall strong reputation for welcoming newcomers with open arms. The Scottish government partnered with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the national association of Scottish councils, and the Scottish Refugee Council to implement the New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-2022, which builds on previous programs and “sets out a roadmap for how Scotland can best support people seeking refugee protection to build meaningful and sustainable lives here.” In addition, according to the BBC, as part of a special UK government program created in 2015 that committed the UK to taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020, almost a fifth of the Syrian refugees resettled in the United Kingdom so far have been settled in Scotland. Meghan O’Neill noted, “It seems appropriate that the ‘Museum Without A Home’ has once again found a home in Scotland, where we can be proud of our efforts to welcome refugees. This exhibition represents a real challenge to governments around the world to meet refugees with the same compassion and generosity; and to build bridges instead of barbed wire fences.”
As of October, the ‘Museum Without A Home’ has packed up and left St Andrews to head to its next temporary exhibit space. After a successful and thought-provoking start to the year with the ‘Museum WithoutA Home’, Oxfam Society is looking to the months ahead. President Alexandria Celli reiterated Oxfam Society’s mission of fundraising for issues concerning global poverty and bringing heightened awareness of well deserving causes around the world to St Andrews. Just this month, the society is hosting two events to do just that: an ‘Into the Jungle’ themed night with DJ Mrs Magoo at the Vic on 16 October and Oxjam Battle of the Bands at 601 on 19 October to fundraise for famine relief efforts in Yemen.