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What happened to our welcome?

Writer Vesna Maric reflects on Alketa Xhafa-Mripa’s piece “Refugees Welcome” at Tate Modern – part of Who Are We? programme.

‘What happened to our welcome?’ asks Alketa. ‘That’s the question I really want to ask.’
Alketa and I are inside the back of a lorry. There’s a neon sign right at the back that reads HOPE in cursive, the letters leaping across a Union Jack. She is in a floral armchair, a cup of tea in her hand. On either side of us, suspended on meat hooks, large letters spell out: Refugees Welcome. The idea behind Alketa’s piece is that passersby can come in, have tea and discuss Brexit and immigration with a refugee, and she can perhaps ask them ‘What happened to our welcome?’.

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Alketa is hoping to resurrect warmth between strangers through dialogue, to capture that moment that can make humanity better – the sense that we are connected, that we can be compassionate, acknowledging our differences, talking about them, engaging. ‘When the war in Kosovo broke out, the British people really helped. I had never encountered that kind of solidarity. It was an incredible act of empathy. A beautiful experience. But in the last five years, it’s all changed. It’s like, there’s no more room. It’s enough. So I want, with this piece, to remember all the good things that Britain gave me.’ The lorry is a space for a dialogue that is simultaneously natural and artificial, a place made especially to accommodate an exchange of opinions, forge contact. And it is a space that symbolises all elements of migration – transport, risk, dehumanisation, hope, possible death. I imagine going anywhere boxed into a space like that, not knowing exactly where I’d end up, or if I’d get caught.

Many people have come in and written in Alketa’s notebook; people love the idea, and the tea, and the dialogue. But there was one man, a Leave voter, who came in after circling the lorry for ages; he didn’t want immigrants in the UK, he didn’t necessarily want to meet them personally, but he was intrigued by the piece; he spoke to Alketa, expressed his views. Opinions didn’t change, but at least he came in. And that’s courageous – the will to politely (and this is crucial) engage in conversation with those we disagree with.

We are constantly fed ideas that are already ours; advertisers mirror our tastes back to us, the media we consume contains ideas we already agree with. And it’s for this reason that Alketa’s piece is potentially so powerful – she plans to take the lorry around the UK, to broaden the dialogue, flex those opinion muscles, twist people’s ideas of ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’ in person. When people who disagree on such heart-palpitation-inducing issues come in to talk, something is exchanged. Human contact has been made. And by facing a human being, the volume of the babble produced by the media, politics and the internet has been, at least for a short period of time, turned down a notch.