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In English countryside, visitors get taste of refugees' experience on the run

Joe Howson's eight-room exhibit is designed to place visitors in the shoes of those seeking asylum in Europe.

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    'The Great British Bake Off' TV show winner Nadiya Hussain smiles as she poses for photographers in London, Thursday, Oct. 8.
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“Move on!” a male’s voice booms, as visitors to Joe Howson's front yard are shuttled along a journey pierced by gunshots and marked by risk and rejection at all turns.

It's the sort of experience few would expect to find in the English countryside, on a plot hemmed in by sheep farms and the Forest of Bowland.

But that's why Mr. Howson created this eight-room space that takes people through a refugee’s experience so that they understand just what asylum seekers are fleeing back home, and what they are finding in Britain once they arrive.

And the exhibit couldn’t come at a better time here, as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis in decades, and Britain hears that their country is “full” because of record levels of immigration.

“I think there is a lot of unease at the moment in the UK around immigration,” says Howson, an educator who focuses on experiential projects to work against political polarization.

'U R not Welcome'

From the outside, Howson's exhibit looks like the kind that might appear on the carnival circuit. But it's built around the experiences of three real refugees: a teenage girl from Afghanistan whose family has escaped the threats of the Taliban; a Christian in Iran whose friends have been tortured for practicing their faith; and a Sudanese woman whose husband has gone missing and who faces mass rape if she stays at home.

As visitors walk through the rooms, they hear the refugees' stories, with voices and sound effects to bring them to life. Visitors are taken through being awoken in the middle of the night to head to the border, sitting in the back of a lorry, and inside a crammed fishing boat. A baby has died on the way. “Move on to the next station!” the narrator’s voice screams.

They head into the next room, set at Heathrow Airport. “Passports! Are you asylum seekers? Who brought you here?”

Once they arrive on British soil, they are pelted with Pepsi cans by youths. They pass walls that read in red spray paint, “U R not Welcome.”

The original exhibit was built a decade ago, amid an earlier wave of migration. Now Howson is recreating it and plans to incorporate Syrians' experiences fleeing their country's war. The new version will be portable, so that he can fold it up and take it to schools and public spaces across the country. City councils have sought his exhibit to prepare communities for the arrival of new refugee families.

Immigration angst

At a glance, it seems absurd that Britain needs such lessons. Step into London, or other major cities, and the energy of multi-ethnic societies that share public space is palpable. Just this month, Britain celebrated its integration when Nadiya Hussain, a British Muslim of Bangladesh descent who wears a veil, won Britain’s “Great British Bake Off” with her “big fat British wedding cake."

“She is showing that Britain is all about other countries,” says Aziz Natha, a fellow Briton of Indian descent. He lives in Blackburn, a multiethnic city typical of the old mill towns in Lancashire, not far from Howson’s front yard.

But that’s not the message resonating in the political realm. Earlier this month, Home Secretary Theresa May told the ruling Conservative Party's annual conference in Manchester that it “does not need” net migration at current levels. She said the country wouldn’t adhere to a common EU immigration and asylum policy. “Not in a thousand years,” she emphasized.

Net immigration has steadily increased here over the past five decades, making diversity an afterthought in many places. Last year, it reached a record of 330,000. And as immigration has grown, so have concerns that poorer EU citizens, like Romanians and Poles, are moving to Britain for social benefits. That has boosted support of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU UK Independence Party, which in turn has set the mainstream conservative agenda.

The refugee crisis has polarized the debate further, as more migrants cross through Europe than at any other time since World War II. And worries about the newcomers are seeded with fears of homegrown terrorism by the so-called Islamic State.

Empathy and integration

Many British feel the country has a longstanding responsibility to take Syrian refugees in. They argue Britain can accommodate more than the 20,000 that Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed to give refuge. But others say the country can’t comfortably house many more.

Because most of the newcomers are Muslims, the refugee crisis has renewed anxieties about integration in British society, says Sundas Ali, a lecturer in politics and sociology at the University of Oxford. While Britain loves a success story, she says – referring to Ms. Hussain, who beguiled Britain with her love of bunting – there is also the side that worries about social cohesion. “It’s not just [society's] anxieties about economic burden but about how to integrate them,” she says.

Howson says that levels of acceptance are generally higher today than they were when his original exhibit, on display today, was first traveling around the country. But the new one that he's constructing in his back yard is still very much in demand.

When Howson updates the stories, he doesn’t want to erase these old ones. A lesson in itself, he says, is how the same experiences seems to repeat themselves today. And he feels that trying to get others to grasp that is the way to turn the situation around. “You have to start with empathy, because otherwise it just becomes an argument.”

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