Refugees take centre stage at the New Beginnings festival

A desire to connect communities and celebrate the diverse cultures that exist within Australia is the driving force behind the New Beginnings festival, to be held on 18 June at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour.

Showcasing the talents, cultural expressions and stories of people with refugee backgrounds and those who are seeking asylum, New Beginnings features live music, dance performances, workshops, food and market stalls. The event aims to humanise refugees and shine a positive light on their contribution to the NSW community.

The festival, now in its second year, is produced and presented by Settlement Services International (SSI), a community-based, not-for-profit humanitarian organisation that provides a range of services including humanitarian settlement, accommodation, and asylum seeker assistance.

SSI Arts & Culture Program Coordinator, and New Beginnings festival producer, Carolina Triana, says the healing power of art will be on show at the event.

“When you go to a festival and you enjoy the music from other cultures, when you taste delicious food from another culture, and you establish a conversation or connection with those people or those artists, or craft-makers, you are establishing a personal connection. And our festival provides a very good vibe, a good feeling, a good space in which to do that.”

Last year’s event attracted more than 1,000 attendees, a fact Carolina attributes to the way the art can break through socially established barriers.

“People are interested in music and dance and the powerful nature of these art forms is that they bring people together… Regardless of an artist’s background or cultural heritage – it’s just about finding new perspectives, new ways of expressing creativity and new ways of connecting with people.

“We are coming from a very positive light, where those contributions, those talents and also cultural expressions are welcomed as part of the community, not as ‘the others’.”

She recalls the audience reaction to the Syrian Dance Ensemble at last year’s event: “People were really interacting with the performers and everyone was dancing. It was beautiful to see. And there were no labels attached, everyone was just dancing and having a good time. It didn’t matter if you came from Afganistan, or Australia, or Columbia like myself – everyone was just enjoying the moment and being part of a community.”

An eclectic and energetic collection of artists and performers will hit the stage this year, including the Sydney World Music Chamber Orchestra, Rwandan dance group Inkumburwa and musicians and dancers from the Iraqi Cultural Festival.

Among the line-up is Sudanese singer-songwriter, Yasmin Ibrahim Mohamed, who says she felt the name of the festival mirrored her own thinking about her experience coming to Australia.

“Australia is a very nice and welcoming country, but it’s still hard when you leave your homeland and your people and move to a place you know nothing about. The experience of leaving itself is a challenging one.

“So for me New Beginnings means people starting new lives; they’re overcoming their circumstances and challenges and participating and contributing with all their heritage, all their history, all their ideas – it’s fantastic.”

Yasmin believes that music and dance have a special role to play in building an acceptance and acknowledgement for other people’s cultural perspectives, because of the authenticity of emotion and heritage each artist brings to their work.

“(Music) connects your heart, your mind, your soul and body, you stir your imagination… it connects yourself with what’s inside… When you engage with other artists, you’re sharing a space of beauty.”

In addition to the Darling Harbour festival, New Beginnings will also feature an art exhibition running from 17-26 June at Camperdown’s Chrissie Cotter Gallery. This multi-faceted exhibition will feature visual art, photography, multimedia, installation and film screenings.

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The New Beginnings Refugee Arts and Culture Festival promises a feast for the mind, body and soul. Get your fill at Tumbalong Park, Darling Harbour, on Saturday 18 June from 10am – 4pm. For more information, visit: http://newbeginningsfestival.com.au/