Migration Matters: Celebrating Sanctuary in the Steel City

Ahead of the festival’s fourth instalment, we spoke to Migration Matters director Sam Holland about the growth of an event which celebrates Sheffield’s status as the UK’s first City of Sanctuary and seeks to unite the diverse cultures across our communities.

First of all, can you tell us about the origins of Migration Matters?
Migration Matters is a celebration of migration, refugees, sanctuary seekers, free movement, identity – all of those things packaged into one big event. It was very much born out of the fact that Sheffield is the first city of sanctuary in the UK, but around 2014 I realised that the city didn’t seem to be doing much during Refugee Week. I met with people from the Northern Refugee Centre and City of Sanctuary Sheffield, who told me that events used to take place but funding eventually dried up. Around the same time Theatre Deli had arrived in the city and they offered a blank canvas for artists, makers and event planners to come together and think of ways to make use of that space. The case was quite simple: the Syrian Refugee Crisis was at one of its worst stages and it was a no-brainer to do something that provided a voice to people in the city who might not have normally had the opportunity, or those who were being demonised by the press. So it was a collective effort to put together an artistic response to all of the stuff happening out there.

How has the festival evolved since then?
It began on a fairly simple grassroots level and has stayed a very much community-led event, which will always be a very important factor for us, but it has grown massively so we’ve received funding from the Arts Council, Evan Cornish Foundation and other smaller trusts who want to support activities that are all about social cohesiveness. We’re all part-time freelancers, and often we’re volunteering more time on top of that, so we’re always stretched but have been able to become more ambitious with the funding we have received.

“it was a no-brainer to do something that provided a voice to people in the city who might not have normally had the opportunity, or those who were being demonised by the press.” – Sam Holland, director at Migration Matters.

How important has that funding been in terms of opening up new doors for the event?
We started out with just over 400 people attending in its first year, to 8,000 across our events last year – and that’s not including the stuff we did as part of Sheffield Carnival. We’ve been able to partner with slightly bigger venues spread out across the city: Abbeydale Picture House, the Crucible, FoodHall, DINA, Showroom Cinema. But even more importantly, we’ve been able to stretch out into the heart of other communities, putting on events in Darnall, Parson Cross, Upperthorpe and Fir Vale, so we’re not excluding people in areas outside of the city centre. From our local community events to headline keynote events such as Lowkey or Benjamin Zephaniah, we’ll keep things pay-as-you-feel and as accessible as possible to the local community.

Is there a particular ethos when it comes to putting together the programme?
I think one of the big things is how we’ve gone from what was mainly a celebration of Refugee Week to something far more widespread, an event where we try and discuss all of the circumstances surrounding migration. It’s important to map out why it’s a complex system of why people move and what makes people go where they go. We aim to focus on lots of different forms of migration, not specifically about seeking asylum or being displaced; we’ve got a number of stories that look at many different stories of movement and journey. Art is a great away to put something across without coming off as preachy, which I feel is very important. I suppose you could go in with a more dogmatic approach in terms of preaching particular views and telling others they are wrong, but it’s much more powerful to attend an event created by a someone who is a refugee saying: “Here’s my story, here’s what I’ve been through.” We also want to celebrate Sheffield as well, to celebrate what makes this city unique and ask local artists and people to share a platform with perhaps more widely celebrated artists.

Any events that you’re particularly excited about this year?
We’ve got 58 events at last count – and I’m not sure that’s the full number! It’s a real highlight to have Benjamin Zephaniah coming along to this year’s festival, but again on a local note, it’s incredible for me that a Sheffield talent such as Otis Mensah will be supporting him. We’ve got a day focused on queer migration at DINA this year that I’m really excited about and I’m really glad to have a focus on it this year, so hopefully we’ll be doing more to represent that community going forward.

You’ve spoken about the event’s growth so far. Have you thought about what else you’d like to accomplish moving forward?
It’s challenging because it’s quite difficult to look too far forward with a festival that tries to remain topical and very much of its time. However, personally I’d love to see it grow into a truly citywide event, so rather than being in pockets it becomes something where communities right across the city can join together in celebrating. Fundamentally, we want it to stay relevant to people in the city and to keep providing a platform for inspiring people, so anyone who didn’t know this is a City of Sanctuary will know about it by the end.

Migration Matters takes place 14-22 June. See the full programme at migrationmattersfestival.co.uk.

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