Interview with Emily Churchill Zaraa, coordinator of Refugee Week

"It’s vital that young leaders are supported, as they are the future creators and shapers or our society."

Interview with Emily Churchill Zaraa, coordinator of Refugee Week

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

I’m Emily and I work at Counterpoints Arts as the coordinator of Refugee Week UK.

And what is it that Counterpoints Arts does?
Counterpoints Arts supports and produces the arts by and about migrants and refugees. This takes many forms, including supporting artists who work on themes of migration and displacement (including artists who have experienced migration or displacement themselves), producing events and projects that help us think differently about migration, and running and supporting projects that bring different communities together through the arts.

How do the arts, migration and cultural change all tie up together?

The arts and culture help us connect with people who might seem different and distant, and imagine new ways of living together. Watching a film, reading a book or creating something together can help us connect with experiences of migration and displacement more directly and deeply than we are able to do just by reading the news, for example.

Arts and culture also help us to move beyond labels, and recognise that migration is part of who we all are; that the history of humanity is the history of movement. You can take almost any everyday object, like a cup of tea, and find a story of migration, and our history and culture is built by artists, inventors, thinkers, builders and all kinds of people who have moved here from other countries. Arts and culture can help us appreciate that the story of migration belongs to all of us.

See also Counterpoints Arts’ core beliefs.

And tell us of some of the big success stories you’ve had?

I’m really proud of our Simple Acts campaign, which has seen a wide range of people across the country coming together to show solidarity with refugees in creative ways.

Simple Acts are everyday things each of us do to make new connections in our communities, gain a better understanding of refugee experiences and show solidarity and support to newcomers to the UK.

In 2018, which was the 20th anniversary of Refugee Week, responses to Simple Acts came from schools and universities, choirs, actors and writers, the British Museum and Penguin Books. Over 130 people sent cards and messages of welcome to people new to the UK, people wrote beautiful 20 word poems, and choirs sang songs written by people trapped in immigration detention centres. The #SimpleActs hashtag was used nearly 4000 times on Twitter.

What is Refugee Week?

Refugee Week is a national festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and asylum seekers and promoting understanding of refugee experiences. Every year, a wide range of organisations across the UK hold hundreds of events and activities that bring different communities together, and enable people who have experienced displacement to share their stories, talents and perspectives in creative and empowering ways.

Refugee Week 2020 will happen online 15-21 June, and the theme is ‘Imagine’, which is an invitation to boldly imagine the world you want to see.

Refugee Week is a partnership project coordinated by Counterpoints Arts.

This will be the second year that you have run the Refugee Week Leadership Project. Can you tell us about it please?

We started the Refugee Week Leadership Project in 2018 with funding from Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, and we’re delighted that they have supported us to run it for a second year.

The project aims to ensure the voices and expertise of people who have experienced displacement themselves are at the heart of Refugee Week, as well as supporting lived experience leadership in the arts and advocacy sectors more broadly.

The project does this by supporting five emerging leaders from refugee or asylum-seeking backgrounds in their leadership journeys, through a programme of training, mentoring and leadership placements with organisations related to Refugee Week working in the arts and/ or social change. Shakespeare’s Globe, Migration Museum, Freedom From Torture and Salusbury World were among the organisations to host leadership placements in the first year of the project.

This year’s leadership group have an impressive range of experience as artists, campaigners and community organisers, despite the fact that in many cases the asylum system has not made it easy for them to put down roots, or plan for the future.

The group took a leading role at the Refugee Week Conferences in London and Bristol in February – Mandla and Hafza ran a workshop on inclusion in arts and culture, Mohammed and Ahmed lead more than 200 people in a collective creative activity and MD did a keynote speech about his work campaigning for the right of asylum seekers to access education.

Like everything, the project has been impacted by COVID and the lockdown, and at the moment we are planning to postpone the leadership placements until a time when they can happen in person. The group keeps in touch through Whatsapp and we have decided to have a Zoom call every two weeks where we teach each other something – last week Ahmed taught us some Farsi, Hafza helped us try line-drawing and MD led us in a mind-stretching game of Kahoot.

We’re also thinking about how the leadership group can be part of the Refugee Week online programme this year and will be working with them on this in the coming weeks.

All of your leaders are under 30. Why did you think it important to have youth voices leading this project?

Refugees and asylum seekers face specific barriers to getting ahead in education and employment, so it felt important for the second year of our project to support emerging leaders at a relatively early stage in their careers and leadership journeys.

It’s vital that young leaders are supported, as they are the future creators and shapers or our society. It’s also great for us as an organisation to work with young people, as they bring fresh perspectives, and have an energy and belief that things can change that sometimes fade as we get older – but that are essential if we want to build a better world.

What are some practical things that young people can do to help the refugee situation?

Take part in our Simple Acts campaign! Find out more at

What projects do you have coming up?

Refugee Week 2020 is 15 – 21 June. Due to COVID, it is happening solely as a digital festival in June – although we will support anyone who wants to hold an in-person Refugee Week event or activity later in the year.
Anyone can get involved in Refugee Week by holding or joining an online event or activity, or doing one the eight Refugee Week 2020 Simple Acts.

You can find out more and sign up to the Refugee Week newsletter at

Header Image Credit: Marian Alonso


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe..

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