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Sociologist Fabian Holle promotes inclusion of refugees with LIMBO

23 February 2023
Fabian Holle, PhD candidate in Sociology at VU Amsterdam, is co-creator of LIMBO: a collective that works together through creative workshops for and by LGBTQ+ refugees to express and understand feelings and issues surrounding experiences as queer and refugee in the Netherlands. In doing so, Fabian seeks to break the societal image of refugees as victims and to reflect on this Dutch stigma, which often stems from good intentions but can be counterproductive.

After various studies and years of experience as a freelance performing artist, Fabian Holle came to the VU as a doctoral student. "I graduated as an actor/theater maker in 2004 after which I worked in the theater field. The premaster and master sociology were new challenges for me. I was quite nervous because of my art background and expected that all the people in the class had done academic studies that were more in line with sociology. However, it all worked out just fine. While researching for my master's thesis, the corona pandemic broke out which meant I could no longer do fieldwork and my research had to take place online. Then I asked refugees to create artworks for an online platform and I interviewed them about it. To my surprise, this was received very enthusiastically. I won a gender & sexuality research award and got a PhD position at Professor of Diversity and Integration Halleh Ghorashi's research project. My interests and skills in the LGBTQ+ community, art and sociology all came together in this." While teaching in his PhD program, Fabian came in contact with then-master's student Noa Bawits who works at the Amsterdam art institution Framer Framed, and after input from artists in Fabian's master's thesis project, LIMBO was born.


The LIMBO project seeks to break the victim-stigma of refugees, among other things, through creative workshops. "Refugees are often seen as people who need to be helped. Even if well-intentioned, it can be very denigrating. Refugees in the Netherlands are very diverse in terms of knowledge, skills and cultural backgrounds: there are scientists, doctors and artists among them. However, because they are treated as victims, they are also only seen as victims. This can lead to insecurity and barriers in their professional and social lives. During LIMBO's safer space meetings, we hold creative story-telling workshops through, for example, poetry, drawing, soundscapes, photography, et cetera. This then often has a theme chosen by the community, for example identity. In these workshops, which are not open to everyone, we learn together from and with each other to shape and tell our own story. In this way, we hopefully get a better handle on all the complexities and layers of identity in the context of newcomers who often fall outside dominant norms. We also have events where we share our artworks and stories with the public."   

Reciprocity is central to the LIMBO project's co-creative process. "The distance between researchers and refugees is often quite large in academic traditions of objectivity and neutrality. As a result, collaboration can sometimes feel exploitative. Refugees are asked to share their feelings and traumas, but often don't get anything directly in return. Our project is also a way of looking at how such a process can be mutually beneficial: both in terms of knowledge and (access to) resources. I have more of an observational role where I try to guide the project, but leave the direction to the community itself. Here, consent is very important. One doesn't have to share anything from the workshops until they are ready. It can sometimes take a while, but at some point people begin to come out of their shell and often become more vocal. Because of the long-term duration of this project, you see a transformation in many, which is very special."  

In addition, LIMBO also emphasizes how refugees' perspectives can contribute to Dutch society. "Beyond their valuable individual characteristics, being a refugee also forces extreme self-reflection in order to understand their position in an entirely new context. Forms of exclusion that go unnoticed by many Dutch people because they seem obvious, actually stand out for these people. This requires a lot of creativity, originality, and critical reflection. Such a fresh look is very important for researchers but also for society as a whole. This is a strength, not a weakness. LIMBO tries to learn from refugees how the Netherlands can adapt instead of, or actually in addition to, that refugees themselves must constantly adapt."  

The future  

Because of its great success, the LIMBO project will be continued. "Initially, the project was only supposed to take place for eight weeks. However, the community did not want it to stop. Framer Framed received a grant six months ago to continue our LIMBO community and another group within the arts institution for two years. It would be nice to become some sort of independent collective at some point. Since this was not the original plan, there are also new challenges. So one of my research questions is how such research can be sustainable without burning people out. That's why it's important that we continue to develop and communicate together so that it really is supported by all of us involved."