Wednesday 22 June 2016

Comics on life in Moscow by African immigrants

The comics are spread out on the immigrant center's table in Moscow.
A Moscow-based center for African immigrants invited Finnish comics artist and teacher Sanna Hukkanen to lead a comics workshop in their premises in January 2016. The center provides health services, language courses, and assists the immigrants in day-to-day issues. The people who use the center come mainly from African countries, such as Cameroon, DRC, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal, and Ethiopia. Many of them are undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers who find it almost impossible to be legally registered in Russia.

The comics workshop gathered together about ten African immigrants. There were also members of the staff of the center and many volunteers who work with the center through various NGOs. The participants spoke French, Russian and English so interpreters were present too. The visual language of comics, however, is quite easy to understand and the interpretation challenges weren't that important. The participants learnt the basics quickly and started working on their interesting stories. Together they chose the theme 'Life in Moscow' for their comics. The comics that were made during the workshop are one-page posters with four panels, also known as Wallposter Comics or Grassroots Comics.

The comics revealed many personal stories. A number of the immigrants had been cheated; they had paid a lot to get to the EU seeking for a better life, but ended up in Russia instead. Many were still dreaming about leaving for Finland, for example.

Life in Moscow proved hard; it was difficult to find employment or a place to stay. Discrimination was present at every level of society. The only job available was to hand out 'reklama', advertisement flyers on the streets. A few comics dealt with their encounters with Russian passers-by. The encounters were mainly positive despite the lack of common language.

Others were drawing stories about the help they had received from the center. There were plans of making a comics flyer that would help illiterate immigrants to find their way to the center. Many are in need of help, but they don't know how to look for it. Usually they hear about the center from other Africans.

One of the participants was an elderly man from DRC. He was very excited about the comics method. He talked about his artwork so enthusiastically that even the interpreter got exhausted! After the workshop he has continued drawing comics. It became a new tool of expression to deal with his stay in the strange and cold country.

The NGO activists and language teachers also took their new skill to their own workplaces. One of the Russian volunteers was especially interested in comics as a tool in teaching. She said she will definitely use comics in her work, a private English-language club for students.

All of the participants enjoyed the workshop because it was something new and different from their normal routines. It is empowering to use creative means to change the world instead of just waiting and struggling. The center has plans to use the comics made in the workshop in communication and in campaigns against racism.

Comic: Ethiopian Zinash Gizaw's story reveals how the ruble's exchange rate affects her chances of sending money home.

Posted by Sanna Hukkanen

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