Burma, Bangladesh, Bradford: Refugee Week exhibition at Bradford Cathedral

Tim Smith is a Bradford-based photographer, who does a lot of work in the Yorkshire area, and also travels to pursue a particular interest in the connections between people from Bradford and places overseas. We spoke to Tim at the installation of the retrospective exhibition ‘Burma, Bangladesh, Bradford: A Celebration of Integration’ to find out more about it.

Photographer Tim Smith.

How did curating this exhibition come about?

I’ve had a long relationship with Horton Housing Association, taking photos for their publications. Around ten years ago they got involved with the Gateway Protection Programme which was a scheme to bring refugees out of the camps in Bangladesh to countries around the world. The vast majority of the people in the refugee camps were Rohingya, a Muslim minority who had fled Northern Burma / Myanmar. They really came to the fore-front of the news agenda and people’s consciousness here in the UK just over a year ago when there were particularly awful things going on in Myanmar, and there was an influx of refugees into Bangladesh. However they’ve been in the camps for decades as the oppression of the Rohingya people in Myanmar has been going on for an awfully long time. These pictures were taken in 2008 and 09.

What images did you capture for this exhibition?

The first few photographs were taken in a Bangladesh refugee camp by a United Nations photographer. The remainder are photographs taken by myself, when I collaborated with staff at Horton Housing to show how they work with people newly arrived in the UK, to establish themselves in Bradford. That work goes much further than just putting a roof over their head. Yes, housing is important but they also provided them with support services such as learning English, accessing health-care and education, and training and employment opportunities. It was a very complex set of resources that Horton provided, and this exhibition was originally produced to demonstrate that to the general public in Bradford and to fellow professionals in the housing sector.

What do you think people will take away from seeing this exhibition?

I hope that people will get a sense of how Horton Housing have worked with these people and what a challenge it is to settle into a new country where you don’t speak the language. You know very little about what it’s like living in Yorkshire when you’re in a refugee camp in Bangladesh! It is a challenge, but I do feel that it’s a challenge that, with the support of Horton Housing, people have overcome and become part of the fabric of Bradford society.

Burma, Bangladesh, Bradford: A Celebration of Integration. On now at Bradford Cathedral until Sunday.

The exhibition is part of Refugee Week; why is such a week important to Bradford and nationally?

Speaking personally, I think refugees don’t always get a good hearing in the mainstream media. A lot of the stories and perception of refugees is that they are a threat to the British way of life and so forth, but Britain, and Bradford in particular, is a society which is built on different people coming to live here and that’s something that I feel should be celebrated. It adds to society rather than threatening our way of life, which is why Refugee Week is important.

With this exhibition now ten years old, have you ever considered doing a follow-up?

Yes I have. I saw a piece recently on the BBC website that the Rohingya community in Bradford is now the biggest Rohingya community in Europe which made me think about going back to find out how the small initial group who arrived are getting on as individuals, and how that community has grown. I’ve also done work with Horton Housing that has looked at more recent refugees, such as those from Syria.

Do you have a favourite image in the exhibition?

If you want a happy picture it’s the two women in the hijabs, laughing. If you want something that’s a bit more reflective it’s the final picture of the girl lying on a sofa in her sitting room. At the end of the day this exhibition is a celebration of people becoming established in the city. I think it’s a positive story; it’s what it says on the tin – a celebration of integration. But the things that these people have lived through, and the reasons that they’ve had to move half way around the world, are pretty traumatic. I think that picture shows that overall it’s a positive story, but it’s also a story that involved a lot of suffering, so it’s not always a happy ending with happy smiling people.

‘Burma, Bangladesh, Bradford: A Celebration of Integration’ is on now at Bradford Cathedral during Refugee Week. A full programme of activities for the week can be found online and at Bradford Cathedral.

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