Stories that chill to the bone

Wed, 22/11/2017 - 13:15


Awareness. The graphic novel ‘Un regalo para Kushbu’ uses a comic format to narrate the flight and traumatic journey of ten migrants and refugees living in Barcelona.

At the Espai Mescladís, a young woman is busy working behind the bar. Regulars and other customers come and go at this cosy terrace between C/ Carders and Pl. Pou de la Figuera, next to an alley plastered with black and white paper photos by neighbourhood residents. Kushbu, who runs this restaurant café, is a woman of few words but plenty of smiles. People who don’t know her are unaware that she’s actually one of the main characters in a comic book which bears her name. Jointly published by the City Council and Astiberri Ediciones, and produced by Mescladís and the Associació Al-Liquindoi with the support of ‘Barcelona, Refuge City’, the book is entitled 'Un regalo para Kushbu. Historias que cruzan fronteras' [A Present for Kushbu. Stories that Cross Borders]. The book works at both an educational and awareness level and is a wedding gift for her and her husband, Basanta, created for them by a group of people who, like this couple originally from Kathmandu, had to flee their countries and seek a better life in Barcelona. “What can I give her for her wedding? The only thing I have, my story!”, was the idea Ilyas came up with.

“Ilyas gave us the idea for the title”, notes Martín Habiague, the heart and soul of the Fundació Mescladís, a sustainable project forming part of the solidarity economy which promotes social cohesion, intercultural dialogue and mutual enrichment in the city’s old quarter. An Argentinian established in Barcelona, Habiague set up Mescladís in 2005, shortly after arriving from Belgium, where he explains he witnessed bad practice in the management of immigration. “I got here at a time when Barcelona was taking in lots of migrants and I wanted to do my little bit at a neighbourhood level”. The entity currently hosts and provides work for over twenty people, most of them with foreign origins, and is mainly funded by the profits from the restaurant café.

Mescladís uses the bulk of its income to fund the programme ‘Cuinant oportunitats’ [cooking up opportunities] which provides training and support in the job market for people in irregular administrative situations and at risk of social exclusion. The goal is to regularise their administrative situation. Most of them are asylum seekers who have had their requests rejected or who have been referred by entities working with refugees. Last year, the programme trained 80 people, 28 of whom have managed to get work and get their papers in order.

Mescladís also runs cultural and artistic projects as part of its community development programme. One example is Diálogos invisibles, a photographic project carried out in 2015 with the photographer Joan Tomàs which uses portraits of urban facilities and public spaces in the city to raise awareness about the history of migrants condemned to live as marginalised citizens. Just like Un regalo para Kushbu, the Diálogos invisibles project “shows that migration is a right and that it is being curbed with criminal migration policies”, denounces Habiague. “If there were no migrants, we’d have to invent them, because there’d be no progress or welfare in Spain without their contribution”.

Individual identities

Un regalo para Kushbu follows on from Diálogos invisibles. Many of the characters in the graphic novel were in the photography project and the goal of the two initiatives is the same: to put names and faces to and endow their protagonists with individual identities. Their stories are unique, but reflect those of millions of people who have come to Europe seeking a better future and who are often treated and depersonalised with numbers and statistics.

“Putting them into shapeless packages is the first step towards taking away their humanity and if I take that from you, I can kill you”, adds Habiague. “By telling the story first-hand you get there via the emotions and it’s possible to empathise”

The names in this case are Kushbu and Basanta, the protagonists, much to their displeasure, of a story of forbidden love which forced them to flee Nepal and risk their lives on an infernal journey. A story to chill people to the bone, as reflected in the cartoon images in the book showing them huddled up in a refrigerator lorry as they crossed Europe covertly.

Ilyas, Soly, Farida, Raju, Deborah, Bubakar, Dilora and Camilo are also names. Ten different people from nine different countries around the world (Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco and Colombia), who ended up finding refuge in Barcelona and have found Mescladís. Many of them requested international protection in Spain, the majority having their requests refused by the central government. Only Farida has refugee status. The rest have gradually managed to regularise their administrative situation as they put down roots, many with proper work contracts or solidarity work linked to domestic services.

Each of their stories are particular, but they converge and have things in common, with moments that overlap: flight, dangerous journeys, deportations, detention, precariousness, exploitation and helplessness, but also solidarity. Each of them represents an aspect of migration: sexual exploitation and human trafficking in Deborah’s case; unaccompanied minors arriving in Europe in Ilya’s case; poverty and the search for a better future in Soly’s case; gender identity in Camilo’s case; the persecution of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban in Farida’s case; organised human trafficking of migrants in Kushbu’s case, and in Raju’s case, detention in a foreigner internment centre (CIE) and deportation to starting point.

There are also three secondary characters who help them connect their stories and understand the comic construction process, consisting of a story within a story. They are Habiague himself, the writer and scriptwriter Gabi Martínez and the illustrator Sagar Forniés, who was part of the creative team for the book from the outset. The novel wanted to address rights violations, but also solidarity, featuring some of the people and organisations who have given them support: ACCEM, the Catalan Refugee Aid Commission (CCAR), the Associació Acathi, Càritas, the Red Cross and the Lloc de la Dona.

Meeting place

There is a place that keeps appearing, and that’s the Espai Mescladís, a meeting point for characters and artists. Some because they work there or have worked there, were trained there or drop in regularly to say hello and feel at home. For others it’s because they met there to get to know the protagonists, prepare the novel, share work and discuss the book’s style and colours. These people also have names. Besides Forniés, and in alphabetical order, they are: Tyto Alba, Cristina Bueno, Miguel Gallardo, Martín López Lam, Andrea Lucio, Susanna Martín, Marcos Prior, Sonia Pulido and Manu Ripoll.

Soly, one of the characters in the novel, is now the manager. He runs the restaurant café and the bar Mescladís operates at the Orfeó de Gràcia. Kushbu is his right hand. Born in Senegal in 1984, Soly reached Spain in a flimsy boat when he was 22 and dreamt of studying to become a civil engineer. He worked in construction for a couple of years in Almeria until he lost his job when the property bubble burst and then went to Barcelona in search of a better life, working as an extra in various films.

His story was drawn by Martín López Lam. The interview conducted by the artists, and previously by Gabi Martínez and Martín Habiague, helped him recall details which he had forgotten and to explain painful moments from the journey which he had never spoken about before.

“You relax as you explain it, because you’re thankful you’re alive to tell it”, he notes.

Own voice

As in Soly’s case, the graphic novel is based on stories as told by people themselves, first-hand. This is a key aspect in how they are produced, because, as Martín Habaiague points out, “migrants are interpreted by others and we hardly have a voice”. Un regalo para Kushbu is unusual in that in general the women protagonists have opted to be represented by women artists.

“What is very interesting and particular about Un regalo para Kushbu is the fact that it is a working collective, with so many people. Between artists and protagonists there are twenty of us, there are as many voices as there are ways of drawing!”, points out Andrea Lucio, one of the artists on the project.

Lucio was the only artist who was unable to meet the protagonist of the story she illustrated. Her cartoon drawings narrate the story of Deborah, the fictitious name of a Nigerian woman who still has to protect her location and identity for security reasons. The details of everything she went through were passed on via Habiague and the script by Gabi Martínez, as well as workers at the Lloc de la Dona who helped Deborah and her two children escape the human trafficking network which was exploiting her.

“Perhaps Deborah’s story is the one we’ve had to recreate most. There were specific details we didn’t know, for instance how she got across the border with Morocco”, explains Andrea Lucio. In order to imagine that and reflect the places and ordeals she went through, it had to be documented. That led her to discover something she was unaware of, that the long straight-haired wig which Deborah wears is commonly used by women in Nigeria.

Not meeting her in person allowed her to distance herself from a really tough story, almost as if it was fiction. “So much so, that you’d need pages to explain it, and in each one we’ve had to synthesise a lot”.



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