More than refugees

Izzy and Tabz.A. are pseudonyms for two emerging artists from refugee backgrounds based on Gadigal and Wangal country. They participated in Diversity Arts’ recent Stories from the Future project to re-envision a culturally diverse, equitable creative sector.

Image[1]: © Diversity Arts / Phoenix Eye

As artists and creators with a refugee background, we face many, many challenges, ranging from the legal limitations imposed by strict visa conditions, and study and employment regulations, to one’s own community’s and family’s views on the significance and far-reaching potential – or not – of art.

It is a constant challenge trying to thrive and succeed in unsupportive circumstances, which is why a sense of inclusion, community and belonging is extremely needed. Many of us come from cultures where art is viewed as a mere hobby or something that needs to be done alongside a more “important” profession.  This idea is underscored by the fact that refugee artists in Australia are still very disadvantaged when it comes to turning their artistic talents into a profitable career. Workshops like Diversity Arts Australia’s Stories from the Future workshop with the Refugee Art Project at Thirning Villa provide good opportunities to make connections within the art community, build friendships, share views and aspirations, and most importantly achieve a sense of belonging and understanding that you are not alone in your struggles.

We grew up as refugees and with that came a lot of emotional challenges and difficulties. Art definitely was and still is a huge coping mechanism for us, as it’s an easy way to express deep emotions and thoughts. Being in camps or confined places as refugees meant we had very limited resources and, really, nothing to do. The first artwork we created was actually on the walls of our cells and was made up of stick figures using the few pencil colours we had.

We proudly come from a mixed cultural heritage, so we love to integrate a range of cultural aspects into our artwork. As mentioned before, we grew up as refugees in different countries and couldn’t really feel like we belonged anywhere.  As we grew, we started to learn more about our cultures, and to embrace and show their beauties in the form of art.

For us, being refugees is undeniably a big aspect of our lives and is something that is portrayed in many of our art works; however, it is not our sole identity.  Often it can feel like it is the only thing people see and look for in our artwork, instead of seeing our individuality. This is important as it can be a label that generalises and diminishes a large variety of identities and talents. We believe it is important to acknowledge someone’s refugee background, but that making it their only title should be avoided. By changing that view, one would hope that the wider society would look at refugees as individuals with various talents that can greatly benefit Australia.

Society seems to determine refugees’ value or “usefulness” based on the publicity they gain or certain overachieving abilities. There is definitely more pressure placed on refugees to succeed, which is often unfair as people have different conditions and opportunities. There aren’t many well-known refugee figures, so people like Anh Do and Behrouz Boochani function as role models and sources of inspiration for refugees.  Whilst stories like theirs provide hope, they are also a sad reminder of the struggles refugees must go through to achieve simple things. Even though their stories could be viewed as inspirational, they also demonstrate how difficult it is for refugees to be accepted. As young people, it makes us wonder what it is that is expected of us and why some of us are never really accepted despite our achievements.

It is very motivating when organisations like Diversity Arts Australia support refugee and ethnically diverse artists by publicising and promoting the underrepresented work of these artists, as well as shedding light on the issues these artists have faced.

Many of these issues require more effort and involvement from people in higher positions to ease access to education and job opportunities.  It’s the reality of many refugees that they are denied access to higher education due to visa restrictions or large costs, along with employment avenues that leave them unable to pursue a career they are talented in. After many conversations with different parts of Australian society, we’ve come to realise that many non-refugee Australians are unaware of the great limitations that are imposed on refugees. We believe this lack of knowledge is a major factor in creating the negative view of refugees; the view that they are a ‘financial burden’ on society. Growing activities of organisations like Diversity Arts Australia provide hope to young refugee artists that a better, more inclusive future is on the horizon.


This piece was originally prepared during a workshop run by Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) and the Refugee Art Project. In the workshop, DARTS invited participant artists to reflect on the Stories from the Future project, which gathers culturally diverse creatives from across the country to imagine equitable alternative futures for the arts. This project is a partnership between DARTS, the University of Sydney, the Refugee Art Project and state partners, and receives core support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, Inner West Council, City of Parramatta Council and Liverpool City Council.

© Izzy & Tabz.A., 2022

[1] Pictured: Stories from the Future workshop in partnership with The Refugee Art Project.