Red Star Line tells refugees’ stories of harrowing journey to Antwerp


A new exhibition at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp delves into the personal stories of recent immigrants to the city


A new exhibition at the Red Star Line Museum in Antwerp tells the stories of recent immigrants to the city in their own words. The museum, housed in an old shipping warehouse, is dedicated to the two million people who set sail from the port city to start a new life in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For its latest exhibition, Red Star Line has turned the tables and interviewed refugees from around the world who settled in Antwerp. The result is a series of powerful testimonies about their origins, their journey from places such as Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Palestine, and how they have rebuilt their lives.

Fieldwork illustrates the breadth, humanity and relevance of stories of courage, fear, war, resilience and suffering. The subtitled interviews are given extra force by the objects that refugees brought with them on their journey.

Reminders of the past

One man from Pakistan fled through the mountains; at the border with Iran he looked back and took photos of the country he was leaving behind, and these photos are on display alongside the traditional shoes and hat he brought with him as reminders of his homeland.

At one point, his regular shoes wore out and he had to wear the others until he reached the next town. “He told us he has a blown-up copy of one of these photos on his wall,” says Fieldwork curator Bram Beelaert. “He says it’s like a window on his home country.”

It was a lot of work to find people and build enough trust for them to open up and share their stories

- Curator Bram Beelaert

The museum recruited 10 people to interview the refugees through an application process that included training in oral history and migration. “We chose people with strong language skills – Arabic, Somali, Chinese, Spanish – and who really had a network in this super-diverse city,” says Beelaert. “Even so, it was a lot of work for them to find people and build enough trust for them to open up and share their stories.”

Four artists who fled their lands will also be presenting their own stories at the museum. The centrepiece is The 32nd Day, a film by one of the Fieldwork interviewers, Andrés Lübbert. He is the son of cameraman Jorge Lübbert, who fled Chile at the end of the 1970s and made a silent film about the events in which he attempted to process the trauma he experienced.

Andrés has remade the film in contemporary Antwerp. The two films will be played alongside each other on a split screen, mixed with images from warzones that Jorge filmed during his career, and testimonies from the Fieldwork project. The idea is to weave together past and present to tell of multigenerational trauma and to demonstrate how art can help someone overcome distress.

Fieldwork, until 19 April, Red Star Line Museum, Montevideostraat 3, Antwerp