by Garrett Dee

Photo Credit: Leah List/Red Room

Leah List is a volunteer coordinator at the Red Room, a volunteer run, socially-conscious artists’ collective and art platform based in Taipei, who is organizing “Artists Bridge the Gap”, an event aimed at providing support to those affected by the current refugee crisis in the Middle East. The Red Room will be partnering with German NGOs Queer Refugees Network Leipzig (QueeRNL) and RosaLinde Leipzig e.V . to provide donations to LGBTQ refugees in Germany by auctioning original artwork created by local and international artists at the event, which will also include a number of live performances. More information about the event, which will take place all day May 29, can be found here.

Garrett Dee:  So to start out, could you say a little about what Artists Bridge the Gap is and how it came about?

Leah List:  Artists Bridge the Gap is actually the fourth installment of what we are hoping will become an annual live art event. The very first one, Artists Beat the Flood, took place after Typhoon Morakot. Some people got together and decided they needed to do something to provide relief for the community, to give back to the community that had supported them, and they wanted to do it using art because I think a lot of the members of that particular community and the community which later became the Red Room feel very strongly that art can provide more than something that is just aesthetic.

So that was the very first event and then later on the next two were both to support the Red Room and a sustainable artistic community. They were very interested in providing resources for new artists, new poets, anyone with a creative idea. And actually in the third one, Artists Break the Mold, they ended up using some of the funds to support Nepal after the earthquake. This year, it was kind of a coincidence that it ended up coinciding with something that I had been looking into, which is the refugee crisis in Germany. Artists Bridge the Gap IV is going to take the usual structure, which is artists gathering at the beginning of the day, painting all throughout the day, and then all of the paintings will be auctioned off. All of the money from all of the paintings will go to the beneficiaries. Also, this year there will be live music with an  original song written and composed for the event as well as a theater performance based on the research myself and a colleague did, in addition to some of the stories we have been sent from the refugees themselves.

GD:  The previous events had been focused more on the local community and issues here. For this event, Artists Bridge the Gap IV, how was the decision made to get involved with the refugee crisis going on in Europe?

LL:  I had been shown the now-famous photo of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who drowned and whose body was found on the shores of Turkey, by a friend of mine named Ting who is part of a theater troupe called All’s Well Theatre. She knew that in university I had focused my studies on the Middle East and was asking me about what I thought about the situation there. So after she saw that photo she knew she wanted to do something to help and asked me to help.  I started doing research on some NGOs that might need some support.

26588222716_21a0679a7e_oPhoto credit: Leah List/Red Room

Personally, I try to shy away from supporting really big NGOs because normally they receive a lot of attention and support since everyone knows about the work they do. Not that they aren’t doing worthwhile work, but there are a lot of smaller NGOs that are doing so many things on the ground that are less visible that really need our support. Also, there can be a tendency in larger NGOs to not be able to tell exactly where the money is going. I was speaking with Ting and talking about getting more specific with who we wanted to help out and we eventually decided on refugees in Germany and so I started doing some research on NGOs there.

Andrew Chau, a founding member of All’s Well Theatre,  and I decided to move forward and think about how we could raise funds for one of these NGOs. The Red Room quickly got word of it and they began to really get involved in the fundraiser. In fact, they provided their resources and became the main organizer of the event. In the end, Manav Mehta, Red Room Reeves, and I became the main coordinators of Artists Bridge the Gap IV.  We have been working closely together ever since. Honestly, I don’t think this would have happened without the Red Room.

GD:  So after you had decided to focus on the crisis in Germany, how did it then specifically turn into working with LGBTQ refugees?

I actually already had a friend in Germany named Tarek who is very involved with local issues and social justice. So I approached him months ago asking for organizations that we could do some work with. He gave me a list and he mentioned that he was starting a program himself and so I asked him to tell me more about that. This was back in October of 2015 when we were originally coming up with the idea for the event and we were talking about how we were going to make the event work and if it was even going to be able to happen because of some of the uncertainties about the logistics and everything. I started talking more with Tarek, though, who was telling me more about Queer Refugees Network Leipzig (QueeRNL), a program under Rosalinde, a large volunteer based German NGO which works with the LGBTQ community. I had done some research on them and really liked what they were doing with the LGBTQ community within the refugee population which had really not been receiving a lot of support.

24830790830_cc1f61c18a_oPhoto credit: Leah List/Red Room

Because of how huge the refugee crisis has been, Tarek’s organization, QueeRNL, has really been forced to define itself as its been working. He has very clear goals for what he’s trying to do though and his first step is safety, finding a safe space and a place to live for these refugees. He also does a number of programs and offer resources for anyone looking to take part in vocational or language training, cultural events and other activities. One of the biggest things they do though is focus on community, which is important whenever you’re in a situation like this where you are isolated not just because of your race and ethnicity and language but also because of your gender and sexuality. Giving these refugees a space where they can freely speak about some of these issues that maybe they’ve had keep a secret is very beneficial for their well-being and mental health.

GD:  I know you have been reaching out to many organizations in the community to help with the event. What has been the process of finding local organizations to partner with and what will those organizations be doing to help support the event?

LL:  We wrote a proposal to many of the organizations that had supported the Red Room in the past and some of them responded favorably and then started reaching out to other organizations.   We have three organizations so far that are collaborating with us and sponsoring us financially, and hopefully we will have a few more in the coming weeks. Other times, we just attended events where we spoke out our plans and we got some of their business cards. It was really just talking to people and getting the word out.

There have been a few Taiwanese LGBTQ groups and organizations we have been working with, including the Queer Film Festival. This is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about, trying to get the local community involved in the event, so we have reached out to people within the Taiwanese LGBTQ community and have asked them to get involved with the planning and promotion.

GD:  You talked about getting stories from those affected by the crisis themselves in order to incorporate them into the event. What kind of contact have you been able to have with those affected by the refugee crisis?

LL:  When I spoke to Tarek I was able to reach out to some of the beneficiaries of the program and they were so touched by the idea that a community in a country so far away from them cared enough about their issues to do something like this. In doing so, we wanted to focus on humanizing them, and trying to help people see more than just a few aspects of their identity. They are more than refugees and more than LGBTQ. They are people, and these are just parts of their identity.

24834762710_270c728169_oPhoto credit: Leah List/Red Room

One thing I really wanted to avoid was posting a lot of the sad stories that you see everywhere, because there’s a tendency, sometimes, to exploit pain and focus on only these parts of the story. It’s sometimes not really effective because people just look at those stories and say “Look how sad that is!”, but it doesn’t really do anything to humanize them in a complete sense—it makes them into a sad story, it makes them into a victim. Initially I had hoped to avoid some of the details of the traumatic things they had gone through, because I didn’t want to make them relive their traumas just so people will donate a few dollars, that seemed unfair.

When they sent us the videos, I encouraged them to talk about things they were proud of, or things they liked or disliked, thinks like that. One of the videos we got touched on some of those things but most of them chose to speak about the bad things that had happened to them. One of their biggest concerns as well, and one of the requests that they have made over and over, is to keep this videos anonymous because they are afraid of being discovered because it puts their lives and the lives of their families in danger. So, we made sure to  put these videos in a separate room and will be asking people to give us, temporarily, their phones and cameras if they want to see it.

In Germany, QueeRNL and organizations like QueeRNL have been facing a challenge in finding people who are part of this community, and ultimately what the organizations have to do is just to go into the refugee community and get the word out there, and hope that people will find a time when they can come. That’s part of the reason why, when people ask me for statistics about how many LGBTQ refugees there are, it’s impossible to know. But even then, if LGBTQ refugees were to make up only two percent of the roughly 1,000,000 asylum seekers in Germany, that’s still twenty thousand people, and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand is that is a sizable community.  Of course,  Germany cannot account for all 1,000,000 , so it may be that there are only 400,000 asylum seekers currently in Germany.  If we keep the two percent figure, that’s still 8,000 people. I think a lot of people imagine that this is a room full of twenty people, and that’s the whole community, but that’s definitely not the case.

GD:  Getting back to the event and the artists themselves, what has it been like working with the artist community here and what will be their participation in the event?

LL:  A lot of the artists participating in the event were involved with the Red Room and had been for many years, so we just contacted many of them asking to get involved. It’s a mix of foreign and local artists with a combination of visual art, music, and theater performance.

The visual artists will all be creating original pieces the day of the event, but none of the musicians or theater performers will be creating an original piece that day, it will only be the painters who are doing that. Also, we are giving the visual artists the freedom to create anything they want, the pieces don’t have to be focused on any particular theme.

We hope that the musicians will be able to perform some songs that the refugees themselves sent to us, although many of the songs are in foreign languages so we will have to work that out to see if it’s going to be possible, but the musicians will also be writing an original song that they will be performing. If, for whatever reason, the musicians are having trouble with the songs we will try to play them over the speaker system at the venue.

26548755421_0982febeb1_oPhoto credit: Leah List/Red Room

As for the theater troupe, they will be performing an extension of the comic, which originally started as a short animated video but which due to limited resources evolved into this comic strip. This comic is in the process of being made by one of the artists. What we ended up doing is taking the comic’s three characters and their stories of crossing the border into Germany, which were based on the stories we were sent by the refugees as well as those we were able to find from research. These stories  were then combined so as to protect individual identities. What the theater will then be doing is continuing the stories in the comic with three monologues. We really hope to be able to do these stories justice because these aren’t just stories for people to read, these are stories that we hope will then motivate them to participate.

GD:  Is there anything else you would like people to know about the event?

What’s it’s always been about for me is recognizing that these are people, and that’s where #opportunitycreators came from. We are framing this event as one that creates opportunities not just for artists here, but for communities in Germany. I think everyone is very capable of doing amazing things, but sometimes they just don’t have the opportunity, and that’s where I think there’s a privilege involved. So if we can do anything to help provide those opportunities for other people, because you would hope that someone would do the same for you, then I think that’s something you should focus on. All people are complex and they have dreams and desires, and hopefully we can help them reach those dreams.

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