Living in Standby

A project of Empowerment and Recognition for women asylum-seekers

European Association of Social Anthropologists

Within a broader strategy of empowerment by Asylum Seekers Department of the Belgian Red Cross, Visual Exchange has worked with a group of 12 women from various countries and with different languages waiting and hoping for their status in a center that welcomes victims of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) or with difficult migratory paths. Grounded on our practice and expertise in Art Therapy and  Participatory Video, we have conducted a process of action-research and care with them. Through concrete personal and collective creative actions, they have explored their story, their feelings, and enhanced their own resources, and ultimately deal with past and present experiences of trauma. A process in four main phases that crystallize finally in a collective and trans-cultural expression form that can be shown outside the group and create new channels of dialogue with the welcome community: a film made by themselves in their own way and with their own words that carry their common struggles, feelings, hopes and needs.


The status of “asylum seeker” has multi-dimensional implications whose aspects are not always known by outsiders. The struggle is not over when one arrives in Europe and seek for asylum. The asylum procedure might take indeed from months up to several years to be finalized, leaving individuals in the meanwhile at the mercy of uncertainty, dependence, isolation, anxiety, powerlessness that is exacerbated by the existence of past traumas they carry with them. The uncertainty journey creates a frozen situation which slows down the healing process of past traumatic situations, often despite sincere efforts of welcome institution.This stage can be very tough, especially for women.

“We arrive in Europe and we think our life is saved, but in reality, we start another struggle, and this is even worse than what we have left behind.. is the awaiting” – Ouma

While waiting for a legal response, they experience vertical power relations with the Institutions that manage the asylum-seeking procedure, where they tell their stories and the reasons for having fled their countries but often, they feel they are not believed. Moreover, the possibility of being sent in the “Dublin country” represent an aver present source of anguish. They also live in psychological and physical isolation that ultimately makes the attempt to heal form past trauma hard if not impossible.


The Art Therapy and Participatory Video process, by generating dynamics of individual and collective expression, triggered awareness of the selves, a process of reconnection with the past and the present condition, and connection with the other. The fact that they were direct actors of that process, that they had complete agency, re- gave them power. The transformative discovery was to know that they were not alone in their past traumas and they were united by the same present reality, the awaiting.

“ I am so happy to have participated, this opened my eyes, because I could see that there are others that lived the same things as me, and in some cases even worse. The waiting here is heavy. When you know that these women are living the same thing as me, this creates a connection, and mutual support for each other to go on.” – Andrea


With the participatory video they have received an opportunity to talk without filters, they have experienced a condition where their voices are considered worth and are validated as such by the ones that watch and listen to them. The recognition they receive eradicates the fear and the sense of worthless of the speech and produces a desire to speak louder, to reach the external community and to interact with the outsiders.

Through the video making process, they have rediscovered that they can learn, are capable of action, they can do things that they thought impossible, and this carry relevant symbolic power.

“This allowed me to have trust in myself, confidence.
Before I couldn’t.” – Aissata
“In many occasions in the past I haven’t talked. I had things to say and I knew I could speak, but I didn’t. Now I learnt to speak up” – Carrie


At the end of the project, “It helped me a lot” is a statement shared by every participant. Given their precarious condition, a tool such as the participatory video, by bringing participation, connection, dialogue, intimate interaction, agency and power, had a reformatory effect and provided them with some resources to deal with their actual condition. To put it simply, it empowered them. Empowerment was to learn, to gain the confidence to dream and to wish to act again. Empowerment was “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel”, as Samadhi said.


Belgian Red Cross – Asylum Seekers Welcoming Department – ADA
FEDASIL – Agence Federale pour l’Accueil des Demandeurs d’Asile


2019 – 2020