Refugee guides bring London's V&A museum to life

By Caroline Hawley
BBC News, London

image captionThe artefacts bring good and bad memories for Fayhaa Abdulwahab

In a high-ceilinged gallery of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, a middle-aged woman stands with tears in her eyes near a marble statue of a contorted torso.

But it is not the art that is making her cry.

It is the tour guide.

Fayhaa Abdulwahab, a refugee from Iraq and a former schoolteacher, is part of a unique effort to bring the artefacts in the museum's glass display cases to life.

Fayhaa's tour starts at a giant turquoise jar in the Islamic gallery, which brings back memories of the jars her mother used to store pickles and date syrup.

A white marble ram reminds her of Babylon.

She describes how Saddam Hussein inscribed his initials on the ancient Mesopotamian site to "ensure his immortality" and how the Americans later damaged the site by building a military base there.

And she remembers the picnics she used to have at Babylon with friends.

"I used to love travelling," she says. "Not any more. Some people travel for fun, some for business." She sighs. "But refugees travel for their lives. They want to survive."

Beside a glazed earthenware horse, she describes how in 1979 she fled Iraq illegally on horseback across the border to Syria.

"I was frightened to death," she remembers. "When I knew I was safe, I turned to look back at my country. I had left everything there - my dreams, my memories, my family, my mother, even the warmth."

Finally, at the statue of the contorted torso, Fayhaa reveals why she had to flee. She had refused to sign a declaration of loyalty to Saddam Hussein's Baath party.

For that, she was dragged out of class by security men in front of her students. "They hung me from my feet and started to kick me," she says.

Depression followed, and years of wandering exile, as Fayhaa moved from country to country before she was finally given refugee status in Britain.

But the life story she tells as she takes her audience around the museum is deeply moving. The crowd breaks into spontaneous applause at the end.

"You're very brave," one woman whispers to her.

'Happy child'

image captionA line of figurines brings back distressing memories for Mary-Lyse

The tour of a fellow volunteer guide from Rwanda, Mary-Lyse, provokes a similar response.

She takes visitors to a glass case displaying a Japanese sword, which reminds her of the machetes used in the country's genocide.

"It was a terrible time," she says. "Death was everywhere."

A line of glass figurines brings back memories of a group of Rwandans who she had seen being chained up before being killed.

To Mary-Lyse's horror, her mother - a nurse - was then forced into the line by angry militiamen after she had pleaded for the life of a four-month-old baby.

Only the quick thinking of Mary-Lyse's father saved her.

But there are happy memories too. A series of antique Korean pots reminds her of the pots her grandmother used to store banana and sorghum beer, and of running around in the fields outside her village.

"I started off as a happy child," she tells the BBC.

Her aim now is try to change perceptions about refugees.

"I did not choose to leave my country," she says. "There was a tragedy and I had to flee. Now I want to help create a bridge between my culture and British culture."

Clare Paul, who set up the refugee-led tours, says feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

"People are very engaged. They're connecting with the refugees," she says. "And that's changing attitudes. The tours are an opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes."

Fayhaa Abdulwahab also finds leading the tours cathartic.

"When I remember what happened to me I feel bitterness in my soul," she tells me.

"But when I see people listening and sympathising, it helps remove it. I feel that there's hope in humanity."

Fayhaa, Mary-Lyse and refugees from Burma, Somalia, Uganda and Darfur have been leading tours of the museum to mark Refugee Week.

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