Refugees Find Their Voice Through Theatre

First published on Fair Planet, 13 January 2017

Inadequate provision of English classes and a lack of routes into work or study programmes are leaving many refugees in the UK isolated, according to new research by academics at the University of Sussex.

Over £40 million was removed from the ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) budget last year alone and in May this year, the government rejected an amendment to the Immigration Bill that would have allowed asylum seekers to work after just six months of being in the UK.

While the government seems determined to make it as difficult as possible for refugees and asylum seekers to integrate into British society, individuals and organisations across the UK are using theatre to teach newcomers the skills, confidence and cultural understanding they need to fulfil their potential.

Kate Duffy, support worker and theatre practitioner, was the brains behind ‘Dear Home Office’, a wickedly funny but moving play about the process of claiming asylum in the UK. Devised and performed by a group of young unaccompanied refugees living in London, the play premiered at the Edinburgh fringe in August and recently enjoyed sold-out shows at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington and at London’s Southbank Centre.

“Improving English was a driving factor for some of the guys to be involved in the project,” says Duffy. “Through using different types of speech and revising scripts, they have widened their vocabulary and been able to develop and practise their public speaking.”

Naqeeb Saide, a 16-year-old refugee from Afghanistan, has spent the last few months working with other refugees and playwright Sophie Besse to produce ‘Borderline’, a clown-based comedy about the Calais Jungle recently performed to sell-out crowds at London’s Cockpit theatre. “My English is improving day by day,” says Saide.

But language skills are just one reason why refugees and asylum seekers benefit from projects like these. Drama workshops teach confidence, collaboration and curiosity. They offer a space for people whose lives have been touched by trauma and violence to be playful and creative, to inhabit someone else’s skin for a while or to confront their own experiences through role-play and performance.

“I’ve seen young men that have never set foot onstage have the grace and swagger to perform in front of large audiences with comic timing, cheeky asides and powerful performances,” says Duffy. “The impact on their self-esteem has been significant.”

Sheyda O’Rang, a refugee from Iran, was referred to Pan Intercultural Arts in 2009 at age 19 after spending time in a UK detention centre and struggling with depression. Attending her first drama workshop with Pan, she was nervous but found a warm welcome. “I met so many people searching for an identity, just like me,” she says. “Those workshops gave me the chance to be someone other than myself, to see the world differently. They gave us hope.”

The workshops and the process of devising a play are often just as important as the final performance. Earlier this year, the Young Vic staged ‘Now We Are Here’, a set of interwoven monologues written by refugees and performed by actors.

Two of those refugees were Michael Mugishangyezi and Tamara McFarlane. “Watching my story performed by an actor was surreal at first,” says McFarlane, “but more and more healing as time went on. It was like free therapy.”

For Mugishangyezi, the most valuable part of the process was watching an audience becoming absorbed by his story. “It’s healing to see people connecting with it,” he says.

In an atmosphere of increasing hostility towards refugees, these projects provide safe spaces where participants can learn English, make friends and grow in confidence.

O’Rang, an anxious and deeply troubled teenager seven years ago, now runs her own drama workshops at Pan and is developing her skills as a camerawoman. None of it would have been possible without Pan, she explains.

But projects such as this are constantly under threat. John Martin, founder and artistic director of Pan, is frustrated that the arts are so undervalued (and therefore underfunded) by both central government and the social sector.

“Theatre is a vehicle for change and changing mindsets,” he says. “We’re not just keeping people off the streets; we’re giving them skills and the ability to express themselves.”

“There is a need for this show,” says McFarlane, reflecting on ‘Now We Are Here’. And as life becomes harder for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, the need for projects like this will only grow. But, facing a lack of funding opportunities and fighting a constant battle against the widespread belief that the arts are a luxury rather than a necessity, their future is by no means assured.

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