“Life [for young refugees] is delicately balanced on a tightrope requiring a constant juggle of multiple, shifting behaviours and identities,” explains Wendy Preston, Creative Director at Mixit, an organisation that is using creative practices to foster belonging, empowerment and socialisation in Auckland’s refugee and migrant youth.
The experience for young refugees and migrants arriving in Aotearoa New Zealand is complex and by no means uniform. The initial arrival is dominated by immediate needs - mastering English, navigating a new city, understanding cultural peculiarities, learning a new education system, building initial friendships and often taking on new responsibilities as the main family spokesperson. The first phase of arrival for former refugee background is also the time when the most resources are available to help face these challenges.
As time shifts, so too do the challenges and the amount of support on offer. Recently at the Transplanted: Refugee Portraits of NZ exhibition in Wellington, three former refugees who arrived here as young children were discussing the unique challenges that they experienced growing up as kiwis with refugee backgrounds. All of them spoke of the difficulty of their teenage years.
As a way to help navigate these challenging years, Mixit runs regular creative workshops on a Saturday, offering a multicultural platform where young people from refugee, local and migrant backgrounds come together to engage in creative projects. They use creativity to build stronger young people who have the skills of communication and socialisation to move confidently and effectively in the world.
“Creativity is the basis of culture - it’s what keeps humanity intact and optimistic.” - Wendy Preston
Creative Director, Wendy Preston has over 37 years experience as a choreographer, director and performer. She discovered the joy of using creativity to connect across cultures while living and dancing in Bali aged 19. This sparked a lifelong love of using creative connections to engage in cross-cultural situations, especially with young people.
Mixit was established 11 years ago by The Fledgling Trust, an organisation dedicated to contributing to the growth of a strong, equitable society by supporting its most vulnerable members. Recognising the social issues that stem from displacement, isolation and tension for young refugees and migrants in Europe, they wanted to contribute to alleviating disillusion in similar communities in Aotearoa.
At Mixit, Wendy and the team use music, dance and storytelling as a way to inspire and bring young people together. “They are a common language, without a need for everyone to speak the same tongue, and allow people to shine in ways that perhaps they struggle elsewhere, say at school, or on the sportsfield.”
Deliberately using creative forms that require collective engagement, the young people (called ‘Mixers’) are guided through a devising process responding as a team to a creative provocation.
“Teamwork and a collective experience are pivotal, no matter what the difference is in age, cultural background or if no previous experience in contemporary arts. Given that at any time on the Mixit floor there is a multicultural mash-up from all over the world, with several ethnicities, languages, faiths and experiences - within the platform of Mixit it's all simply about a coming together of humanity.”
Through engaging in creative process, Mixers become aware of their own self-expression and build self-confidence. They learn ways of communicating while having fun providing a base foundation for positive socialisation. “Creativity is a powerful tool for empowerment - be it for individuals, or on a wider societal level,” Wendy explains. “It swiftly opens door and enables transformation and change.”
Working together towards a common creative goal increases understanding of each other’s different perspectives on the world and as a result builds compassion within difference and community - essential elements for young people to feel connected to place and start to form a sense of belonging.
“Young people share their musical influences, exchange stories in different languages, find common ground and together link arms and step into their future. It is a place of belonging and family, where we just happen to use participation in a creative process as the activity base, but ask any Mixer what the most important thing is for them at Mixit and they will say it's my 2nd family, my friends and it’s a place where I belong.”
“What if we made it bigger, bolder, brighter? All of us stronger, more powerful, going different places - together.” - Mixers, 2017
Wendy supports the moves to increase the refugee quota in Aotearoa as promised by the new Labour-led government. But she says that it absolutely has to come with an increase in opportunities for long-term community development. “A disproportionate share of resources, focus, and understanding goes into the first stage of arrival, but after that many people are left on their own.” We vastly underestimate how long it takes to achieve a sense of social belonging and connectivity within a completely new culture.
She calls on the general public to consider meaningful ways that we can build a supportive and open relationship with those arriving here as refugees. “Step up beyond being appalled at the atrocities happening around the planet and be part of helping how the ripples of escalating chaos elsewhere are manifesting in your own backyard.”
The rewards are well worth it. For Wendy there is incredible joy in seeing the transformation that Mixers go through when they engage with each other and build community through creativity. Mother’s tell her about how their kids have become different people – stronger, articulate and focused.
Wendy is passionate about what refugee and migrant youth contribute to our society and even more passionate about enabling them to become the strongest version of themselves to make that happen.
“They are the embodiment of this now vastly over used word ‘diversity’. They bring new perspectives, different ways of doing things which add to an ever-expanding cultural tapestry we now call Aotearoa, making us more connected to the planet from our quiet little corner of the Pacific. They bring new worldviews and ways of celebrating, singing, dancing and telling stories. The can help challenge stereotypes and disrupt barriers of difference that divide and create tension in our communities. They also make this a more interesting place to live and be part of. The future for us all is one that celebrates unity and is a glorious rich mix of voices.”
Mixit: “It’s all of us” a book by Wendy Preston was released on Wed 29th November and is available for sale from the Mixit website.
All proceeds from the book go straight back into supporting the Mixit youth and their annual creative programme
Check out Mixit’s summer programme: Fresh Eyes: How We See It
Fresh eyes on old stories - love, life the universe and everything - told through dance / theatre / light
Shed 1, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson, Jan 13-14, 2018 (2pm & 7pm)
Info available at: www.mixit.co.nz