A British Museum Spotlight Loan

Crossings: community and refuge

The story of human life on earth is a story of migration. This movement became more difficult with the introduction of modern borders and national identities. 

There is no one story of migration. It is a vast, complex, interconnected set of situations. The root causes of migration in modern Europe are different to the circumstances in Asia or the Americas. Economic and climate crises affect different groups of people in different ways.

People have moved for a better life and they have moved to escape threats on their lives.

Reactions to migrants arriving in the UK can be mixed. Some of us see it as an enrichment of our communities, some as a threat. This can depend on our personal circumstances and the place we hold in society. We all make assumptions about migration and its impact, but are things always what they appear?

The Lampedusa Cross made of wood from a wrecked refugee boat is a reminder of lost lives, the kindness of strangers and the impact of traumatised survivors on receiving communities. Alongside the cross, artist Issam Kourbaj’s tiny fragile boats, fashioned from discarded and repurposed materials, capture the uncertainty and fear experienced by those separated from home as they embark on these traumatic voyages.

The Lampedusa Cross - a wooden cross covered with flecks of blue, green and yellow paint.

british museum logo   M Shed logo

From ‘Home’ by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire

…you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land…

The Lampedusa Cross - a wooden cross covered with flecks of blue, green and yellow paint.

The Lampedusa Cross, Francesco Tuccio, 2015

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Lampedusa Cross

Francesco Tuccio, 2015

Made by Francesco Tuccio, Lampedusa’s carpenter, the cross is made of wood from the boat that caught fire and sank off the coast of Lampedusa on 11 October 2013 with a loss of 311 lives. There was no official rescue service at the time, but the island’s inhabitants risked their lives to save 155 people and then cared for them from their own small resources. In Lampedusa’s church, Francesco met some of the surviving Eritrean and Somali refugees, who were fleeing persecution through Libya then attempting to cross to Europe.

Moved by their experiences, he made each of them a small, pendant cross symbolising their salvation from the sea and hope for the future. He went on to make and distribute larger crosses for museums, churches and community organizations worldwide, in the hope of engaging people with the plight of the displaced, as well as the impact on the communities that receive them. This example is from the British Museum.

12 small model boats made of tyres and matchsticks

Dark Water, Burning World, Issam Kourbaj, 2016

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Dark Water, Burning World

Issam Kourbaj, 2016

Issam Kourbaj was born in Syria in 1963. He has a background in fine art, architecture and theatre design. Kourbaj trained in Damascus, St Petersburg and London. Since 1990, he has lived and worked in Cambridge, where he has been an Artist in Residence at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge and a Lector in Art.

Kourbaj’s most recent work has focussed on the crisis in Syria and Dark Water Burning World is a collaboration with poet Ruth Padel. The twelve little boats here are part of a larger group, some from the British Museum and some kindly lent by the artist, and were inspired by ancient miniature model ships from 5th century BC Syria. The installation examines the ongoing plight of Syrian refugees and the dangerous journeys many face crossing the Mediterranean.

The boats are made from repurposed bicycle mudguards, jam-packed with upright, extinguished matchsticks, which evoke the huddled groups of people making the sea crossing to Europe. These escaped people now carry visible and invisible scars, scorched into them by the separation from their homeland. The once beautiful and abundant sea has become a terrifying expanse on which the lives or deaths of thousands are decided.

Refugees and migrants living in Bristol Today

To accompany this intimate display, M Shed has commissioned a series of audio interviews from five refugees and migrants living in Bristol today. Each person has contributed an object to accompany their story.

By presenting these narratives alongside the British Museum Spotlight loan, we briefly explore the motivations, joys, sorrows and intricacies that migration can involve.


“It really is not a melting pot, because I don’t think everyone is blending into one…it’s more like a tossed salad, everyone has all of these great individual things about them. Everyone lives in this city exactly as they are and they each bring their own uniqueness!”


Yasmeen is originally from the Netherlands and has lived in the UK nearly 20 years.

a lanyard, pedometer and business cardShe deliberately chose Bristol as her base. She works for a social enterprise called ACH where she helps refugees integrate into the UK. This is her lanyard and business card. With extra time during the pandemic, “I aimed to walk 10k steps a day and gave the pedometer as a reminder of that. The walks would be to wherever I felt like going until I reached 10k steps. I love the harbourside so would often head to the waters.”

She loves living in Bristol. She likes how diverse it is and admires how the city is pushing to be greener.

Yasmeen loves having her family here and has made lots of friends. An average day sees her juggling both work and study, trying to incorporate seeing friends and getting enough sleep. Her hopes are to keep doing good work and living her life by being true to herself.

Listen to Yasmeen’s story:


“Growing up in Somalia was a difficult time because when I was 7 years old the civil war in Somalia started, you can imagine suddenly you lose your houses, your education and schools and that is where I grew up and that is my experience.”


Sayidali came to Bristol from Somalia in 2006.

embellished flash with patterns made from colourful dotsSpeaking five languages helps him assist his community. His voluntary work includes helping Somali women overcome challenges to achieve their goals.

Embellished flasks like this are typically used to contain milk for children in Somalia.

Sayidali chose Bristol because many of his Somali friends were here and there was already an established community. Sayidali thinks Bristol is an excellent place to live, because it is a quiet city when compared to places like London. He studied at City of Bristol College, Plymouth University and Aston University. He’s now learning computer programming. His days are very busy. Sayidali loves the community that has built around him and enjoys helping people within that community. He is content to think that things won’t change much from the way he lives now.

Listen to Sayidali’s story:


“In the beginning I didn’t have the children with me. I have 2 boys, teenagers now, but when I arrived it was only my husband and me and it wasn’t easy. My husband spent a few nights sleeping on the streets. We wanted a better future for our children. We needed to start from the ground up.”


Loredana moved to Bristol from Romania in 2016. Her husband had arrived the year before.

a bible with its pages open and highlighted textShe worked in an envelope warehouse, but soon started working for a cleaning agency. After a year, she started to work for herself and in 2018 founded her own company. She now runs a team of four people. She really enjoys living in Bristol and believes that the people in the city are very kind and understanding. She’s had no negative experiences.

As a child, her dream was to become a missionary and a businesswoman. She likes to say that ‘dreams do come true!’

Loredana was pleased to find several Romanian churches in the city. This bilingual bible represents her faith.

She is inspired by George Müller, a Christian evangelist who set up orphanages in Victorian Bristol. Profits from Loredana’s business go to Christian charities.

Listen to Loredana’s story:


“It took me years and years to accept where I was born, be proud of it and also accept the fact that I might be British but I’m also Egyptian.”


Viviane was born in a secular Jewish community in Cairo, Egypt.

a book with the title 'to egypt with love'Viviane lived in central Cairo until 1956, when her parents were forced to ‘donate’ all their property to the Egyptian state and to leave the country as a direct result of the Suez crisis. Her father was stateless, but her mother held a British passport, so they made the journey to England. Arriving as refugees, they were immediately sent to a ‘refugee camp’. It was hard adapting. They were moved to London, where she lived until 2004.

Viviane moved to Bristol to marry her second husband. She’s retired, but volunteers for charities that help refugees and asylum seekers. “No matter how settled you are in the country you live in, the feeling of homesickness and displacement is always there somewhere.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Viviane had time to write her memoirs. This book is primarily a legacy to her family. She wanted to preserve her stories and provide an insight into the Egyptian Jewish community.

Listen to Viviane’s story:


“I found a document that stated being unable to live openly and freely as a gay man is a basis for claiming asylum in the UK and seeing that I was really happy. So, I was not nervous or fearful when I made the claim.”


Ken came to Bristol to study mechanical engineering in 2009.

black, red and grey rugby shirt and bootsHe didn’t want to return to his native Kenya for fear of persecution. As an openly gay man, he felt it was unsafe to return to his country of origin. In Kenya, people are imprisoned for homosexuality. His passion for rugby helped him become a much-loved member of the Bristol Bisons, an LGTBQ+ inclusive club. These rugby boots and shirt are part of his original kit.

In 2019 he faced a direct threat of deportation from the home office. His teammates rallied round him and their outcry helped to gain 180,000 signatures for a petition. This helped towards his release and the eventual dropping of the case.

He now has confirmed refugee status in the UK and actively helps provide support for asylum seekers within the city.

Listen to Ken’s story:


The British Museum’s National Programmes aim to highlight key objects in its collection. It is one of the many ways the Museum collaborates with organisations across the UK. Through this programme and other touring exhibitions and loans, in 2021/22 the British Museum lent 1,594 objects to 95 venues, reaching three million visitors – one million more than visited the British Museum in the same period.

The British Museum is proud to be working in partnership with M Shed on Crossings: community and refuge.

This Spotlight Loan is supported by the Dorset Foundation in memory of Harry M Weinrebe.

This Spotlight Loan has toured to the following venues:

  • Coventry Cathedral 22 – 23 May 2021
  • People’s History Museum Manchester 29 May – 5 September 2021
  • Hastings Museum and Art Gallery 10 September – 5 December 2021
  • Derby Museum and Art Gallery 10 December 2021 – 6 March 2022
  • Ipswich Museum 11 March – 12 June 2022
  • M Shed, Bristol 18 June – 18 September 2022

It will then tour to:

  • Rochester Cathedral 22 September – 27 November 2022
  • Shire Hall Historic Court House Museum, Dorchester 1 December 2022 – 26 February 2022