All I left behind. All I will discover

Young refugees share their stories through art

When you’ve taken a perilous journey across land and sea to flee war, persecution or poverty, it can be hard to find the words to articulate that experience.

But art can help.

All I left behind. All I will discover is an exhibition giving unaccompanied young refugees and asylum seekers in the UK a platform frequently denied to them.

Organised by the British Red Cross and currently on show at the Oxo Tower in London for Refugee Week, it is a chance for young people to speak for themselves.

“You know, art is a short way to explain something,” said one of the young artists featured in the exhibition.

“But it’s also difficult to understand what it is trying to explain.”

From drawings to paintings, sculptures to ceramics, the artworks explore a range of themes including difficult journeys, nostalgia for home, and hope for a brighter future.

Above all they highlight the strength and resilience of these young people.

My Family Is Lost

My Family Is Lost symbolises how families are broken apart by conflict. The installation takes inspiration from the ceramics of Grayson Perry. It comprises shards of a broken vase and a number of plastic toy soldiers, distributed to show a shattered family-of-four.

Coming from countries far and wide such as Eritrea, Syria and Sudan, many have undertaken perilous journeys to get here: crossing the Mediterranean Sea, surviving the Calais ‘Jungle’ and seeking asylum from war and persecution.

These journeys are a recurring theme among the young people’s artwork.

One Country. One World. One Planet. One Future

What better object to illustrate an increasingly interconnected world, and migration in general, than a ladder?

One Country. One World. One Planet. One Future turns the globe into a giant game of snakes and ladders, and those on the move, those refugees whose work comprises this exhibition, as the players.

Life Jacket

Life Jacket contains approximately 30 different patches, sewn on to a life vest. The images were first drawn on transfer paper before being ironed on to the cotton patches.

Some patches express some of the fundamental principles of the Red Cross such as unity, independence, humanity, and universality; others focus on themes considered important in life, like health, dignity, family, and a future.

More than 5,000 refugees tragically lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2016. The boats in which they attempt to cross are often not seaworthy and overcrowded. Some die of exposure and dehydration during the crossing. Others suffer burns or poisoning from sitting too close to the boats’ diesel engine.

Little House

Straining your eyes at the Sudanese flag on the top of the little clay house, you can just about make out the words ‘Sudan, Darfur’.

The artist said: “This represents a house in Western Sudan in a village. This is to remember my childhood.”


Inshallah is based on one young artist’s experience of travelling through the Libyan desert. It shows an overcrowded pick-up truck moving through a vast and empty landscape with mountains rising up against the night sky.

During this refugee’s journey, a young boy fell from the truck. When his fellow travellers asked the driver to stop and pick him up, the driver responded, “Inshallah”, which is Arabic for ‘If God wills it’. The truck did not stop.

Inshallah reminds us that, while we may be more familiar with images of refugees in overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea, these are just a snapshot of the much longer, perilous journey most have taken to find safety.

Past, Present, Future

Dividing the canvas into three, the artists who have come together to produce Past, Present, Future give a moving insight into the journeys of some of the young refugee artists.

In a scene from Syria, bombed-out buildings and cars sit under a helicopter, which flies ominously overhead. In the middle a figure holds a backpack under the title ‘Stop Refugees’. To the right, and the future, is a focus on education — a desire shared by many of the young artists.

The young people who made this artwork said: “Stop war, to stop refugees, to have a good future.”

In the absence of safe and legal ways to claim asylum, many young refugees are driven to make dangerous journeys to get to Europe. The British Red Cross has called on the government to expand its criteria for refugee family reunion, to make it easier for those who have successfully claimed asylum in the UK to bring close family to join them safely.

Hallo Frieden, White Hands, Our Shared Future

These prints were designed by young people at the British Red Cross refugee and befriending project in Lewisham. They share messages of welcome, hope, peace and love in languages including English, German, Vietnamese, Spanish, Arabic and Tigrinya ( Eritrea’s main language).

Produced over two sessions, these prints are inspired by kangas — the colourful textile wraps worn in East Africa. A kanga often has riddles or proverbs and other phrases written on one side.

The first session focused on introducing the groups to kangas. The groups designed

their kanga, with each person creating an element or pattern, as well as a phrase that it represents related to the Refugee Week 2017 theme of ‘Our Shared Future’.

During the second week they carved these patterns on to individual blocks of printing foam and used them to print on to the fabric.

This Fragile Planet

When the young artist who produced This Fragile Planet is asked where he is from he answers simply: “I am from Earth, you?”

The main element of This Fragile Planet, a plastic globe, is partially covered with a bandage and packing tape printed with the word, ‘FRAGILE’. The globe is acquired from the local Red Cross charity shop the young artist volunteers in. It has suffered a severe impact at the point where Eritrea is marked, affecting the entire Horn of Africa and the Middle East. A plastic toy soldier is perched on the site of impact. The bandage wrapped around the globe does not cover the part of the earth where it has suffered its most serious wounds.

Nearby, a Red Cross emergency response vehicle is positioned close to the wounded globe alongside plastic toy soldiers. It symbolises the conflict situations in which the Red Cross often carries out its work.


The message from this untitled piece, written on the top left-hand side, is: “You can’t choose the way we were born, but we can choose the way we live.”

Many of the young people exhibiting today, indeed many of the pieces exhibited, share this sentiment.

Elsewhere, the lonely figure of Alan Kurdi is shown in the foreground of a sketch in which a paper boat, its flag proclaiming ‘SOS’, floats wearily under a waning sun.

Not Welcome

Not Welcome is a simple piece, but one with many layers of meaning. The doormat is a token of domesticity and crossing it symbolises acceptance into the home and the family.

Yet this is not the reception of the young refugee behind this artwork. Instead, the stencilled words jar with our expectations. A simple prefix is enough for the item to become something else entirely: a barrier, a safeguard, a precaution.

Refugees are often the subject of negative press here in the UK and hate crimes have risen since the Brexit vote. The British Red Cross works to address prejudice and build community ties.

Our Open Arms project is helping communities in Liverpool and Greater Manchester get to know refugees and asylum seekers living in their area.

Indefinite Military Service

Indefinite Military Service is a stark and perturbing art work, made by a young Eritrean artist. Inspired by Banksy, it shows a civilian on a leash being dragged away by a soldier in combat fatigues. The text in the top right corner reads, ‘Indefinite Military Service’, indicating the likely fate of both soldier and civilian. The message is deliberately blunt.

“Nobody has heard of my country,” said the young refugee from Eritrea.

Eritreans comprise the fourth largest group of asylum seekers in the European Union. Many young refugees try to make their way to Europe by first crossing the Sahara desert and then the Mediterranean. It is an extremely perilous journey.

All I left behind. All I will discover

The Oxo Tower in London is hosting an exhibition of artwork made by young people from our refugee services in London and Kent.

All I left behind. All I will discover’, will run at the gallery on London’s Southbank from 21–25 June.

More than 80 young people aged 15 to 19 from countries including Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Albania have contributed to the project.

Many fled conflict or persecution in their home countries and made the journey to Europe during the height of the refugee crisis in 2015. Others made journeys through the Sahara desert and were detained in Libya before making the perilous Mediterranean Sea crossing and eventually reaching the UK.

The Red Cross runs projects for unaccompanied asylum seeking children, refugee children, and young people across the UK, providing advice and support to help them settle into life in the UK.

We work hard to build up trust with these young people. We support them through the asylum process, while they settle in the UK and as they transition to adulthood. We also refer and signpost to other agencies and services, as appropriate, as well as giving them the space to make friends and develop their talents.

In 2016, we helped over 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 58 towns and cities across the UK.

· Find out more about this exciting exhibition.

· For more information about Refugee Week events in your local area, please visit the Refugee Week website.

· Get your Red Cross teaching resources this Refugee week.