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Stories that build bridges

As the debate on migration remains on most people’s minds, Jo Caruana finds out why each migrant story needs to be told and meets two women planning to do exactly that.

Migration is the hot topic on everyone’s lips. From the on-stage questions asked by the play Lampedusa, currently showing at St James Cavalier, Valletta, to the daily struggles we watch on the news, migration seems to pose questions that nobody knows the answer to.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to know more about it. Two women – anthropologists Elise Billiard and Virginia Monteforte – have launched a project wholly dedicated to asking key questions and sharing migrant stories.

“As migrants ourselves, I think we’re naturally drawn to wanting to know more about what other migrants are going through,” says Billiard. “Of course, things are very different for me as a white French woman and for Virginia, who is from Italy originally, than they are for a black Malian man for instance. We can travel everywhere, we can get a visa easily and most people (so far) don’t see us as a threat. But this difference doesn’t mean we’re not migrants too. Stressing this might seem obvious and limited, but I believe that, politically, it is very important.”

The project aims to highlight that being a migrant is something universal, a condition that can be easily shared and experienced at one point in anyone’s life

It was the passion to get this point across that led these women – both now based in Malta – to start Rima. Theirs is an anthropological and artistic project that explores the concept of migration by addressing the subject from different points of view and representations. It aims to highlight that being a migrant is something universal; a condition that can be easily shared and experienced at one point in anyone’s life.

“I am passionate about Rima because, for once, a project is addressing the reality of migration. Once we have understood that migration encompasses anyone coming from a different setting, then we can break the ‘us’ and ‘them’ divide and understand that migrants are us. Then we can really get somewhere,” Elise says.

Thus, Rima addresses the very basic questions that need to be discussed: Who are the migrants? Am I in danger of becoming a migrant myself? If I become a migrant myself is it dangerous to cross borders? Why are some people able to travel, while others can only escape? Why does the word ‘travelling’ bear the promises of new experiences, discoveries and fun memorable moments, while the word ‘migrating’ gives opposite impressions? What is the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant?

“Personally speaking, I could never have imagined leaving Rome for good and living in Paris and Malta,” says Virginia. “Likewise, other people could never have imagined being forced to abandon their land and having to build a life elsewhere. While some dream about the concept of migration, others dread it.”

With this in mind it’s easy to see that migration implies all sorts of stories and a whole plethora of emotions. “But there is one universal truth,” she says. “It concerns everyone – we are all migrants, whether we come from migrant families, are living away from our birth country, or will live somewhere else one day.”

Thus, the duo stress the issue of constantly portraying migration as a ‘problem’, or as a matter of legality or illegality. “Really, the only truly problematic things in this respect are the dramatic reasons that force people to move and the difficulties that they face when they get there. And that’s exactly what we are bringing to light through Rima.”

The project, supported by Malta Arts Fund, Valletta 18, Archivio Memorie Migranti (Rome) and Viaggi Solidali (Turin), has gone through various steps on its road to fruition.

The first was research-based, and Virginia and Elise collected narratives from migrants from across the world who are now living in Malta, as well as the story of a Maltese girl who has lived overseas for some time. They asked a range of questions related to ‘home’, including how long it took to feel at home and the idea of what home really means.

“We also questioned them on how they prepared for their trip and which objects they took with them and which had to be left behind. I have always been fascinated by places and objects of memory. I believe you can really find the depth of an experience on the surface of what you decide to bring with you. Every object brought or left behind is a fragment of a tactile, intentional and emotional autobiography,” Virginia says.

As part of the next set of steps, these stories have now been compiled for a performance at Palazzo Pereira, Valletta, that will take place on February 26 and 27 and will also be put together in a book that will be released at a later date.

“Virginia and I have taken each story very seriously, not because they are migrant stories in particular, but because they were given to us, they were trusted to us and we feel responsible for them. We also think that each person has an amazing way to see the world and that each interview provides little gems that need to be just highlighted so as to be heard at their right value.”

Thus, they’ve ensured that the performance has preserved the freshness of the interviews and are excised to see the work of director Marcelle Theuma and actors Sharon Bezzina, Magdalena Van Kuilenburg, Ali Konate and Marta Lombardi.

We are all migrants, whether we come from migrant families, are living away from our birth country, or will live somewhere else one day

The book, meanwhile, is proving to be more challenging. “How are we going to print spoken words without putting them under a glass, like insects pinned down in a museum box?” Elise asks.

Nevertheless, they have vowed to create the book that they believe will make a difference to people’s perceptions – much like they created the upcoming performance, and the successful Rima Film Festival at the end of last year. “Rima will continue to be a mix of the dreams we have and the concrete actions that we take. We will continue to show films by migrants and also plan to create more workshops and exhibitions – but that’s all in the future. For now, we are focusing on this performance as we endeavour to tell as many stories as we can,” Elise says.

The Rima theatrical adaptations take place on Friday and Saturday at 8pm at Palazzo Pereira, Valletta. Tickets are available by sending an e-mail to rimaproject16@gmail.com.

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