Festival of Migration – Day 2

A Proud Celebration of Migrant Cultures: UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights and The Southside Symphony  

By Izzy Taylor, Refugee Festival Scotland volunteer  

I was excited to return to the Southside Community Centre on 17 June for the second night of the Festival of Migration, a multi-day event celebrating diverse cultures as part of Refugee Festival Scotland.

“…the right to culture and cultural expression is fundamental to the continuity and evolution of identity, ‘and what is more important than identity?” 

On day two, the audience enjoyed a talk by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, Alexandra Xanthaki, followed by a narrated musical journey from The Southside Symphony. All the spoken performances were translated by sign language interpreters. It was a special evening with an atmosphere of hope and community.  

Alexandra began her talk by joking she could manage without a microphone because she has a loud voice, something which is part of her culture. She was born in Greece where she qualified as a lawyer, before moving to the UK to continue her legal studies. She is now a Professor of Law at Brunel University London and has been in her position with the UN since October 2021. She is a warm and engaging character, whose talk was interesting and engaging. She began by explaining her role within the UN to investigate the policies and approaches to cultural rights of each nation state, and campaign for improvements where they are needed.  

The right to culture means that everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and sciences, and everyone has the right to protection of their artistic and scientific productions. However, the right to culture is often termed the ‘Cinderella’ of human rights because it is perceived as ‘nice’ but not essential to life. Although in many situations immediate humanitarian aid is essential, Alexandra argued that the right to culture and cultural expression is fundamental to the continuity and evolution of identity, “and what is more important than identity?”.   

Alexandra recalled a very powerful quote she heard earlier in the day at the Festival of Migration’s Cultural Rights World Café. An Iranian photographer shared that when the state violates what they want to take photos of they feel like a swan with broken wings. This sentiment is likely shared by others who feel they have lost their cultural practices due to migration, or whose opportunities to participate in community events are hampered by their liminality and treatment by the state. It is a poignant reminder of the importance of culture in helping establish belonging, integration and personal identity. 

“…when the state violates what they want to take photos of they feel like a swan with broken wings.” 

But what needs to be done to improve the situation? Alexandra spoke of three opportunities: access, participation, and integration. She emphasized that integration is not a one-way process whereby migrants have to join in with a ‘European’ way of life. Instead, it should be a two-way exchange of cultures and an opportunity to learn from others, whether you are part of the majority or minority community.  

Alexandra’s lasting message was to contact her with issues or allegations relating to cultural rights. She stressed that the UN relies on civic partnership and engagement, and she wants to hear from you! 

In the short break before the next performance, guests were invited to enjoy sweet and savoury food made by the North African women’s cooking group. Tables were laid full of items on each side of the room, and there was also a fragrant hot tea served. It was all delicious and I wished I hadn’t eaten my dinner beforehand!  

The Southside Symphony then took to their seats on the stage, a talented, diverse collective of six musicians, each of whom impressively moved between different instruments or roles. The performance began with a poem by resident poet Ghazi Hussein titled ‘I am an interesting file’ which reflected on his experience of racism by airport security. He managed to balance the grave seriousness of the issue with his charismatic and humorous performance and had the audience applauding loudly.  

The Symphony then began to play, just the gentle sound of fiddles at first, but the performance quickly built into uplifting songs it was near impossible to sit still to. Each song reflected the changing landscape and culture of Scotland and the wider world through time, starting with the industrial revolution, then Irish migration during the famine, the rise of the British Empire, and current day war and famines – each event characterized by waves of migration. The performance beautifully transitioned between deeply moving, slow-paced songs, to fun and cheerful melodies, and even some tap dance and whistling. One piece I found particularly moving was a song composed and sung by Samba Sene, who was born in Senegal and is now settled in Edinburgh. Déséquilibre Sociale, which translates to ‘social imbalance’ is a tribute sung to mourn the young lives lost making ocean crossings, an emotional moment when reflecting on the tragic news from Greece in the last few days.  

The whole evening was an educational, inspiring and exciting event to attend. With moments to think and learn, moments of deep reflection and emotion, and moments to dance along to the music in our chairs. The event took me on a global journey through time and left me feeling immensely grateful for the opportunity to celebrate migration.  

Read Izzy’s blog on Day 1 of the Festival of Migration here.


Refugee Festival Scotland 2023 runs from 16 – 25 June. Check out what’s on where you are.