Three times per week, Loulou comes to IOM’s transit center for women in Niamey to teach them contemporary dance.

Art Therapy: Voices from the Transit Centres in Niger

To celebrate the Global Migration Film Festival, now in its third edition, IOM staff in Niger organized three different workshops — on dance, music and painting — for migrants staying at IOM’s three transit centres for migrants in Niamey.

When Ali Narey, a local artist and art teacher, first came to IOM’s Eagle transit centre to kick-start the art workshop in late 2018, he asked the migrants at the centre if they were interested in painting. Most of the migrants had never held a paint brush in their lives while others had a background in arts. “I have never painted in my life, but Ali said it was voluntary and open to anyone,” explained Njoh, a 26-year-old from Cameroon.

“He said we could paint anything we wanted, so I did. This is not savagery,” Njoh added, as he explained the meaning behind the piece he painted. “Life is hard in Cameroon which forces girls to leave their village and go to the big city to earn some money. It’s humiliating for my country to see what women have to resort to in order to feed their families. This is why I left.”

“This is not savagery,” said Njoh, 26, of his painting. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Njoh left Cameroon for Algeria over three years ago, but finding work abroad proved to be quite the challenge. Like the other migrants who took part in these workshops, he is now waiting to voluntarily return to his country of origin. He has been staying at Eagle since November 2018; the centre is open to men and families. Asked what he wants to do upon his return, Njoh simply said: “I want to learn, to understand and to achieve.”

In 2018, IOM assisted close to 18,000 migrants coming from 29 different countries of origin at its six transit centres in Niger. Most of these migrants arrive at the centre traumatized by the things they have seen or experienced on this perilous route up north. Psychosocial activities have been shown to improve the migrants’ mental state by taking their minds off of their problems, be it even for six hours per week.

IOM’s psychosocial team organizes regular group therapy sessions as well as individual counselling. During their time at the centres, migrants can engage in professional training and regular recreational activities such as sports and visits to museums or the cinema. The activities are always tailored to the migrants’ needs and vulnerabilities.

Hassan, 26, is another young migrant who was in need of support when he arrived at the transit centre. He left Liberia looking for better job opportunities abroad. Back home, he used to sell DVDs of foreign films: “Indian, African, American — you name it, I sold it,” he explained. He saw a lot of his friends migrate to Europe and do well for themselves, and thought he could do the same. Once he made his way to Algeria, he found a job in construction and over the next six months, he tried in vain to earn enough money to continue his trip. Eventually he realized that couldn’t go any further.

During his school days, Hassan took a liking to drawing so he was one of the first volunteers for the painting workshop. His work reflects some of the anxiety he felt back then.

“This is me waiting and hoping — feeling stuck.” — Hassan, Liberia

Throughout the one-month workshop, Ali Narey worked closely with fifteen migrants including Njoh and Hassan to explore their ideas and make them a reality. He taught them how to cut canvas and stretch it onto frames. All of the paintings produced by the migrants during the workshop, together with some of Ali’s work, will be exhibited on December 12 at the Franco-Nigerien Cultural Centre (CCFN) in Niamey.

Loulou comes to Bobiel 2, IOM’s transit centre for women in Niamey, three times per week to teach women contemporary dance steps. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Painting wasn’t the only type of expression being explored in Niamey. At only 27, Loulou is one of the most prominent professional dancers in Niger. Originally from Côte d’Ivoire, Loulou has made a name for herself not only as a contemporary dancer, but also as a dance coach. She is used to teaching contemporary dance steps to women of all backgrounds and dance levels, but her November workshop was her first time working with migrants.

Loulou’s workshop was held at Bobiel 2, IOM’s transit centre for women in Niamey. Opened in 2018, Bobiel 2 can host up to 60 women per month. Of all migrants assisted in Niger in 2018, 10 per cent were women, and 66 of them were victims of trafficking.

Not all migrants are ready to speak about the things they have experienced as the wounds and memories are still fresh in their minds. Workshops like these are an alternative outlet for them to express themselves.

“I always explain to them that dance is a way of showing what we store inside — our deepest feelings and emotions.” — Loulou, dance coach

Loulou and her group are set to perform on stage in mid-December, and the pressure is on. The trainers felt the challenge of hosting their month-long workshops at the transit centres because some of their pupils returned home before the sessions were over, and others took their place. “It’s hard to start from scratch every couple of weeks, but we will make it work,” said Loulou, optimistically.

The children at Bobiel 2, IOM’s transit centre for women in Niamey, watch their mothers dancing during the workshop. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

At Bobiel 1, IOM’s transit centre for minors, Kamikaz Liman, Nigerien rap artist, stops by three times per week to teach the youngsters the tips and tricks of becoming a rap superstar. The migrants worked closely with Kamikaze for four weeks in order to brainstorm, write and perform their own songs.

“The goal of the training is to allow them to escape for a while, to try to break out from the routine and boredom,” said Kamikaze. Ten to fifteen minors, all 16 or 17 years old from Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea-Conakry, took on the challenge.

Minors usually spend longer periods of time at the transit centres in Niger while IOM’s Protection team goes through the process of retracing their families; this gave the migrants enough time to record their songs in a professional music studio and even make a music video. This December, the group will perform on the big stage at CCFN in Niamey alongside Kamikaze and another popular Nigerien artist called Safiath.

Abba will be one of the superstars of the day. He was only 15 when he left Cameroon and set out for Libya with big dreams of Europe. IOM’s mission in Niger assisted Abba and another 273 unaccompanied minors this year through its assisted voluntary return and reintegration programme.

Just like Abba, most of them left their countries of origin with a dream, but a sense of adventure too. Now 17, he is happy at the thought of going back and seeing his mom who he hasn’t laid eyes upon him since he left Cameroon. Until then, Abba is excited that he gets the chance to show off his skills in front of hundreds of people — and stage fright won’t be an issue.

“Why would I be afraid to perform in front of so many people?” he asked. “After everything I have experienced on this route, there is not much left to be afraid about.”

In fact, he expects to have the audience in the palm of his hand: “You really want to know why I left my home when I was only 15 years old? You will have to listen to my song then,” Abba said, laughing.

Our group of young rap artists including Abba (second from the right) at IOM’s transit centre for minors in Niamey. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

During this five-day mini-festival within the Global Migration Film Festival (GMFF) in 2018, there will be a dance show, an art exhibition, a concert, a film competition and several film projections. All the activities organized by IOM’s mission in Niger under the GMFF are possible thanks to the support of the European Union.

The assistance provided at IOM’s six transit centres for migrants in Niger in the framework of the Migrant Resource and Response Mechanism (MRRM) is funded by the European Union Trust Fund for Africa, and co-financed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development of France (MEAE), the German Cooperation, the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Swiss Confederation, Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This story was written by Monica Chiriac, Media and Communications Officer at IOM Niger.