Defining 'they' and accepting strangers

By Kate Hall
"We need to be especially conscious of division in our society, and resist that division." - ADJØ Cafe.

I've struggled to begin this conversation or dive into this thought process for many minutes, maybe even years. When I heard about ADJØ Cafes's art project, the ‘Who Is? Project’, I immediately wanted to write and talk about it. But I'm a white woman who lives on the Hibiscus Coast, just north of Auckland. I have little to no regular contact with refugees, I live in a very middle-upper class area, and even though the message of inclusivity and resisting division is one I want to tattoo on my forehead, I just don't want to duck up this conversation.

Be patient with me.

Let's start by explaining what project I'm referring to...

'Who Is? Project' aims to tackle issues around immigration systems and globalisation. It is a comment on the many invisible borders created through history. As co-founder of ADJØ Cafe, and one of the artist's behind the project Jonas Jessen Hansen, describes it, it's "a catalyst to discuss division and the growing fear of the stranger." It's no new project, but this is it's first time to New Zealand.

The project is symbolised by a white flag embellished with the words “Who are they? Who are we?”. This flag first exhibited on World Refugee Day on the 20th of June 2017 at the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art. Since then, it's flown in many European centres, and now flies in ADJØ, Dunedin, to be admired in person
until the 23rd of July.

For those visual learners out there, here's what the exhibition looks like:
I'm not in Dunedin, though I wish I was right now, but this exhibition has taught me a lot from afar. Namely, what 'they' means.

I do not understand what it is like to be a refugee, however I have drawn on my past experience and reflection, to help me reflect and attempt to understand as much as I can.

Who are 'they'?

As a kid (aged 10), I lived in Mongolia with my family for 1.5 years. Before then, I had a very vague concept of who 'they' were. Arriving in Mongolia was one of my first chances to understand 'they'.

'They' were people completely different to me. 'They' were people who looked differently to me, spoke differently to me, ate differently to me, and lived in a land the was the complete opposite to where I was from (Mongolia is the most inland country in the world, has only one city, and many live nomadically).

But 'they' weren't actually 'they'.

I was.

I was the stranger to their country. I was the one entering their home land. I was the different person; but I never felt like it.

This could be due to my naïve and innocent age, or my optimistic and outgoing personally, but I believe it was because of Mongolia's culture and societal norms of inclusion and acceptance. I truly don't think Mongolians perceive 'they' like we do in New Zealand.

This really became apparent when on a work trip with my dad (a volunteering vet at that time) for a week. We drove in a Russian ute called a 'Peregon', with about 3 other Mongolian dudes, through deserted land. Every few days we'd arrive at a town, and dad would work while I hung out with our driver (who spoke no English), or played with the local kids.

During this trip, I had the best day of my life. Upon reflection, I believe it was because I experienced the true definition of a world without the concept of 'they'.

On this day, we were out in the countryside. I was instructed to play all day with a Mongolian girl a similar age to me, while the adults worked. She knew no English, and I knew very little Mongolian. It could have been a very long and tedious day. Instead, (and I'll say it again!) it was the absolute best.

We played with the goats, we ran up and down hills, we pushed random roller things, and generally entertained ourselves. We communicated through weird noises, demonstrations, facial expressions, and so much laughter my eyes water just remembering it.

We were the same. She wasn't 'they'. She was me; I was here. No difference mattered.

Reflecting on this experience, combined with the 'Who Is? Project' has pushed me to define what 'they' really means in the context of "Who are they?".

'They' describes a person, or a group of people, who are different. It describes groups that are disconnected, separate, apart. Wouldn't it be wonderful if when groups collided, particularly in the case of refugees, 'they' didn't exist?

That's what the 'Who is? Project' aims to promote: a message of acceptance, and a resisting of division.

While I understand the concept of 'they' is more complex than one blog post, I hope my personal reflection of this exhibition and my past experience allows you to open your mind to how you want to personally address and act on 'they'. My hope is that it leads you to open your community, your conversations, your home, and your heart (in a non-cheesy way of course) to 'strangers'.

As co-founder of ADJØ says, “Right now we find the message especially important. We know everyone is scared, but we truly believe that we, as a country and a global community, will overcome this very real existential threat."

“We hope that the goodwill that the community has been demonstrating during this crisis can continue and be extended to those who take refuge in New Zealand in the future”.

Ask yourself: Who are they? Who are we?