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Photo courtesy of Brendalle Belaza

NYUAD’s Contract Staff Perform at the Global Migrant Festival

Five members of NYUAD’s contracted staff showcased their artistic abilities and engaged with other participants’ displays of talent at this year’s virtual edition of the Global Migrant Festival.

Nov 28, 2020

On Nov. 21, five members of NYU Abu Dhabi’s contracted and domestic worker community participated in the 2020 Global Migrant Festival, showcasing a wide range of talents. Supported by NYUAD’s Office of Social Responsibility, Harkamal Singh, Brendalle Belaza, Sathpium Peiris, Baljit Kumar and Tristan Legaspi shared their experiences being artists in the UAE as panelists in a session titled “Notes from the Gulf”.
“An alum, Isabella, who is interning with the GMF, reached out to [the OSR] and helped connect us with the founder of the GMF,” explained Firas Ashraf, Program Coordinator at OSR and Class of 2019. “I met with him over zoom … and immediately we could think of dozens of our contracted colleagues who have artistic passions and skills that the world needs to see,” he added.
First held in Dec. 2018 in Singapore, the GMF has provided a platform for over 200 performers from 25 regions to share their stories of migration through an array of cultural performances, films and panel discussions.
“Arts and culture have always been a window into the human condition, as well as a reflection of larger societal issues,” shared Shivaji Das, Director of GMF. “The festival therefore seeks to use arts and cultural activities as a medium to allow low wage migrant workers and refugees to have their voices heard and their stories told.”
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unique challenges it posed for the festival, the 2020 GMF adapted to an online format with sessions taking place over the web conferencing application Zoom. The shift to a virtual format expanded the reach of the festival to a more diverse audience. Through 33 sessions held over a span of nine days, more than 200 participants from 50 places of origin were able to present their narratives.
Baljeet Singh Performing a Hindi Song. Photo Courtesy of Global Migrant Festival.
“Notes from the Gulf”— an hour-long session — consisted of two parts: an arts showcase, followed by a question and answer panel moderated by Nandini Kochar and Aasna Sijapati, Class of 2021. Panelists shared poetry, photographs, paintings and songs that reflected their passions and delved into conversations about how their time in Abu Dhabi had impacted their art.
Photo Courtesy of Sathpium Peiris.
“It was a great experience … I never knew [other panelists] had such talents. I guess they didn’t know about mine either,” reflected Peiris. “It [GMF] gave me a chance to meet with new friends and expose my talents.”
The panel discussion, which came to be more like an open conversation, served as a platform for panelists to reflect on the relationships they have fostered through their art, in their home countries as well as within the NYUAD community.
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD Office of Social Responsibility.
Through his poem, written and performed in Hindi, Singh was able to raise awareness about rape culture in India and explore his passion for social justice issues.
Legaspi spoke about the bonds he has formed with students at NYUAD through his portrait photography.
Photo Courtesy of Tristan Legaspi.
The GMF session also served as a space for participating contracted staff to reminisce about their artistic trajectories and achievements.
Belaza fondly reflected on the first photography class she took through OSR’s programming, which led her to a nationally recognized photography journey, while Peiris remembered the first time he shared his paintings with his colleagues and the appreciation he received.
“I think for colleagues, being a part of GMF is an incredible achievement in which they are being recognized for their work as artists. They’re not just migrants but they are humans with talents and skills that go beyond their jobs,” said Ashraf.
The session also included a few NYUAD students who joined the studio audience to cheer on the panelists and hear their perspectives.
“Attending this session has left an impression on my mind that people can learn from their environment, and the challenges they face to develop a set of skills that can enable them to identify and succeed in a variety of settings and achieve extraordinary results,” stated Minda Belete, Class of 2022.
Towards the end of the session, the panelists described their future aspirations and hopes in terms of their artistic journeys.
“I’m so inspired by each of our colleagues who represented NYUAD at the Global Migrant Festival,” Kochar proudly exclaimed. “My favorite [part] was when they shared with us their aspirations for the future. To learn that Sathpium wants to open an art gallery and Tristan hopes to have his own photography studio, among others, was incredible.”
The session, through its powerful performances and display of immense talent, transcended language. Panelists were able to comfortably express themselves in English as well as Hindi, with moderators translating their narratives. Kumar ended the session with a performance of a Hindi Sufi song, complemented by him playing the harmonium.
As the contracted staff listened to other participants’ stories and appreciated their artistic talents, the GMF sparked new bonds among them, opening doors for new creative endeavours.
“I met Harkamal at the cafeteria after GMF and we talked about working together. He can write poems and I can make paintings based on them,” said a hopeful Peiris. “This gives me courage to make more paintings and I hope we can share our combined works in the future.”
Aasna Sijiapati is a columnist. Email her at
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