‘People need to know the stories of those who to everyone here are invisible’

Michael, YV TP LGBT Refugee Workshop Portrait

Michael, a participant in the Now We Are Here workshops.

I like the theatre. It’s something I know communicates something to everyone. I got involved in the Young Vic through another group. I went to a session, and they asked lots of questions. They asked me to write a letter as if I was writing to my best friend about my life. I haven’t seen my best friend in such a long time, the experience of writing that moved me. Then they asked me who my favourite person was. I said my grandmother. They asked me how I would describe her in one word, I said “flower”. They asked me how she would describe me in one word, I said “clown”. And then they asked me who she is to me, I said “shield”.

Then we started talking about our stories. The some people who gave their stories wanted to talk about their home country. Like Jamaica. Everyone here thinks Jamaica is a happy place, lots of reggae, lots of sunshine. They don’t know the reality of what it’s like to live there if you aren’t like everyone else. One person wanted to talk about his cancer. His cancer, and the vulnerability it gave him made him safer in the eyes of the social services. The cancer that was harming him was his protection, his proof that he was a victim and his guarantee that he could stay. He doesn’t want his cancer to go, because that means that he himself might have to go too.

But I wanted to talk about what life is like here. I don’t want to tell the story of how I got here. People always ask me about my journey but they don’t realise that my journey is still going on living here. People need to know the stories of those who to everyone here are invisible. What I want to do is to communicate that pain is not limited to being a refugee or an asylum seeker. Pain is universal, pain doesn’t discriminate. Pain is something that we all feel. Sometimes it’s like people don’t understand the every-day reality of what it’s like feeling lost.


The cast of Now We Are Here. Photo by Helen Murray.

They treated us so well at the Young Vic. They gave us a lot of purpose, food to eat and friendship. I am still in touch with the people who we did the production with. I made sure that the money that was raised went to the charities that have helped us, like Room to Heal. An outcome that I am very proud of is the creation of the Cotton Tree Trust. An audience member with an amount of money they had saved for thirty years was so moved by the play that he has started to think of creating a trust to practically help refugees and asylum seekers like me. Theatre can keep creating this compassion, and I am grateful to have been apart of this project.

This blog post was originally featured by Room To Heal, a charity which supports refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK. Their blog can be found here. This post was written by Michael, a participant in the workshops that led to the production of Now We Are Here which ran at the Young Vic in July 2016.

Astoria | Latest YV short

Astoria, the latest in the series of Young Vic short films, was released alongside the Young Vic’s Horizons season announcement earlier this week.

Written and directed by Paul Mason, former economics editor of Channel 4 News and BBC’s Newsnight, it follows a Syrian refugee’s journey to the West. Once there, an encounter with the past in a Budapest hotel draws a parallel between Europe’s historical and current response to refugees.

The experience highlights the necessity of resistance to oppression – and the danger of losing sight of history. In Astoria, Paul Mason explores the irony that today’s refugees are moving through a landscape that was the site of genocide; the limitations of what individual people can do when faced with atrocity; the way resistance and memory intertwine. Astoria was filmed in Budapest, Hungary and Stoke Newington, London in early 2016, Astoria stars July Namir and Sonya Cassidy.

In 2012, Paul covered the rise of the far right party in Hungary. Whilst there, his team stayed at the Astoria Hotel and discovered it was used as S.S. Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s headquarters and as a torture chamber during World War Two. Since then, Mason has wanted to tell that story.

Paul said, “It is axiomatic that the story of the refugees will be told by refugees. But the story of our inhospitable continent, and our forgetfulness about why people leave their homes, and where hatred leads – that is our story and we have to confront it. Astoria is my personal response.”

A new series of short films based on the experiences of refugees from around the world will be released in 2016 – 17.

You can find out more about Horizons, a season exploring the lives of refugees, at the Young Vic in our Horizons blog post.

Now We Are Here | Michael

Now We Are Here, part or our Horizons season of work, features four true refugees stories which are drawn together into a heartbreaking tale of the pursuit of freedom. Taking Part at the Young Vic presents this extraordinarily beautiful new play.
We spoke to the people who were originally involved in our first workshops about where they are from and why they decided to get involved in this important project.

Michael, YV TP LGBT Refugee Workshop Portrait

Michael, a participant in the original workshop, originally from Burundi.

Q. How old are you?
A. Well, that’s a very tough question because in Africa we never ask about age…being a person who has never celebrated their birthday or anything like that, makes it very tricky. But as far as I can remember, maybe 1972 – so I’m getting to 43/44.

Q. Where are you from?
A. Burundi. But it’s all about East Africa for me because my mother’s origins are in Uganda and her grandmother is from Tanzania, so I’m all East African.

Q. How are you finding it in the UK?
A. Well, I would say safety is the only thing I can mention. It’s safe. It’s so challenging – I’ve been here 13 years. I fled my country because of the political and tribal tensions in Burundi – 2000 /2001. Having been imprisoned, free, then to Tanzania. Having to leave without the freedom…having been believed by the home office…having to be destitute…with no permission to work and having no representation. I mean, it’s all denial. It makes me doubt where there is freedom or where there is justice. Sometimes you find that you are not regarded as a human being. I have to avoid all the papers that talk about me so I feel dehumanised. I feel like, all the time, I have to prove who I am, where I am from – it’s a very dehumanising process.

Q. How have you found doing this workshop / what do you take away from it?
A. Workshops like this are a gamble. I was referred and I just came in for a chat because I’m not allowed to work…I’m not allowed to go to school. I just came in and I met Imogen and Ian and it was very interactive. In my opinion it was more like counselling – I started talking about my like and I never thought it would be something that people would be interested in; my kind of ordinary life which I think is very horrible, very un-entertaining. For a day like to where were have merged with different people, different feeling to come up with something that friends…people…can come and relate to makes me a human being like anybody else.

Now We Are Here will run 20-30 July in The Clare at the Young Vic. Tickets are free and all donations will go to Micro Rainbow International and Room to Heal.

HumanMe – a response to the refugee crisis

Once a year our Young Associates have the opportunity to create a performance in response to a topic they want to explore. This year they chose to create something that represented the human side of the refugee crisis, going against what the stereotypical negative story of groups of migrants the media tends to portray. They created a multi-discipline performance entitled, HumanMe.

YV HumanMe rehearsal

The production featured three different elements; a short video documentary, a ‘Syrian lounge’ and a performance by a cast of 9 young people from our neighbourhood, directed by Diyan Zora and Fiona Sowole.

YV HumanMe rehearsal

The cast of 9 devised short scenes exploring new and different relationships forged between strangers as a result of the crisis. Many of the stories which featured were influenced from one of the participant’s own experiences living in Calais. The group focused on sharing stories from individual refugee’s perspectives in an attempt to humanise the crisis and the positive relationships that can form in difficult circumstances.

YV HumanMe rehearsal

The video documentary the Associates created featured two interviews with a 16 year old Syrian refugee who discussed his journey and his family who are now spread across Europe and Andrew Connolly, a journalist who helped contextualise the crisis and the issues and hardships refugees are facing day to day.

YA HumanMe - Syrian Lounge

The ground floor of the community art space Platform in Southwark was transformed into a Syrian styled lounge. The audience were invited to enjoy the space after the performance and to encourage them to talk about what they had watched over some Syrian food and music.

When asked why the refugee crisis was chosen one of the Young Associates, Fiona explained, ‘We wanted to do something that we cared about and something that was important to us. When we heard about the Good Chance Theatre closing down we knew that we wanted to express how important this crisis was to us. We care about what is going on and wanted that to show in our work.’

HumanMe was created by our four current Young Associates. Our associates are young people from Southwark who are learning the ropes for a year in different Young Vic departments, arming them with transferable skills for future employment. Our Young Associates are:

Kate Clement Production
Teniola Osholoye Finance and Fundraising
Fiona Sowole Taking Part and Directors Program
Helen Spincemaille Press & Marketing

Calais: A write up from the Jungle | Part 4

Lily Einhorn is the Two Boroughs Project Manager at the Young Vic, working with local residents and community groups in the neighbourhood. She is also a freelance writer and community theatre practitioner. In a series of posts Lily shares her experience of a recent visit to the Good Chance Theatre, a newly constructed creative space in the refugee camp in Calais.

There are hundreds of stories. All different. These people are labourers, students, artists, shop keepers, restauranteurs, engineers, public administrators, children.

Those children will never make it over the fence, though. They may have walked for eight months to get here but here the journey ends. Except the Jungle isn’t an end for anyone. It’s stasis. A place where life crawls along, not forward, not back, just along. That’s why the Good Chance Theatre is not a luxury, not a panacea, it’s a lifeline. Its breath for those gasping for air. There is, in the act of imagination, of illusion, inherent hope. In the small moments between reality and fiction there is a space to exist in that transcends the mud, the tents, the asbestos, the unwashed hair and damp clothes. That space is the theatre tent. And without it these people’s lives would be moments bleaker.

I don’t doubt that there are tears in the jungle. There must be depression. Despair. The children’s mothers can’t keep them washed, fed, warm. Men can’t reach their families. Loved ones are held apart by invisible immigration laws so strong you can feel them. It is unimaginable to me. Me with a red passport which means I can keep my child close, keep her washed, fed, warm. That means I don’t have any other recourse but to imagine a horror that might compel me to put her on a boat, leave her behind, or send her ahead. These refugees don’t have to imagine that reality. They’re living it. There must be tears in the jungle, but I didn’t see many of them. People are too busy surviving to cry.

*            *            *

As we drove out, groups of men in black clothes trudge towards the fence, towards an uncertain future. The fog hangs thick in the air but it’s hard not to look at their bent backs and feel hopeless. A high barbed fence. A drop. A run through a dark tunnel or a ride in a suffocating lorry. A field in Kent. Many of these men have family in the other side. A daughter in Wembley. Parents in Manchester. A brother in Bradford.  It’s impossible to say whether they’ll ever achieve the reunion that keeps them going, one foot in front of the other, into the night.


Calais: A write up from the Jungle | Part 3

Lily Einhorn is the Two Boroughs Project Manager at the Young Vic, working with local residents and community groups in the neighbourhood. She is also a freelance writer and community theatre practitioner. In a series of posts Lily shares her experience of a recent visit to the Good Chance Theatre, a newly constructed creative space in the refugee camp in Calais.

The preservation of hearts is really how, and why, the Good Chance Theatre exists. Two young playwrights, Joes Murphy and Robertson went to visit the camp and decided it needed an arts space. So they set one up. A large, white dome stands glinting in the sun in the middle of Afghanistan. Originally pitched in Sudan to compensate for that area’s lack of infrastructure, it was moved after the French authorities decided to build there – to date nothing has been started. So they moved it. Took it down, set it up again, with around 50 volunteers – scrambling and banging and heaving it into existence. It is a space for expression. For joy. For hope. To talk. To sing. It is a space to feel a little bit normal in. To re-imagine yourself not as a refugee but as someone who can dance or draw or simply listen.

It has been up and running a relatively short time in its new home when my colleagues and myself visited. Men drift in and out, sometimes curious, sometimes bored. If there’s something going in they might join in. Both Joes want to establish a routine – they have an event every night at 7pm. A film night, a music night, spoken word nights. We were there for all three. We learned Afghan dancing to the strains of Sudanese music played on iPhones, guitars, and sung – loudly. We listened to mournful laments, so beautiful they silenced the din. We stood back as men danced with abandon in their coats as rain splattered against the white sheeting. For the spoken word night we set up the stage, lit hundreds of tea lights and settled down in the glimmer. Joe and Joe performed poems and speeches to start the men off, Gbolahan performed one of his poems, then the refugees – the participants – took to the stage. Stories were told in Arabic, Farsi and Pashtun. Some were translated. Some were not. A young man sang a love song to his feet. At some point we had to call it a night but it could have gone on into the small hours, story giving rise to story to song. In the day the tent is a workshop space. Anything can happen. We ran sessions on games that turned Into drawing. We played Grandmother’s Footsteps. We taught children the Hokey Cokey and Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. They learned fast. Whenever we did drawing, everyone, adults and child, drew flags or homes. The places they had left behind. We decorated the tent walls with colourful images. And I wondered how many British children could draw the British flag. Or would ever feel the need to.


Calais: A write up from the Jungle | Part 2

Lily Einhorn is the Two Boroughs Project Manager at the Young Vic, working with local residents and community groups in the neighbourhood. She is also a freelance writer and community theatre practitioner. In a series of posts Lily shares her experience of a recent visit to the Good Chance Theatre, a newly constructed creative space in the refugee camp in Calais.

Walking through the settlements, people stop, we shake hands, everyone wants to say hello, ask where you are from. Britain, we say. England. London. Eyes widen. England is the promised land. It’s just not clear who it was promised to. Not these people. Some have walked for eight months to get to the UK. They have trekked over mountains in Afghanistan and desserts in Sudan and paid people smugglers to ride in lorries. They have sailed on make-shift rafts. They have jumped on trains. And then they reach Calais. Between this existence and a new life stand five, tall, wire fences. Wide rolls of barbed wire perching on top. It’s the only option. ‘Each one harder harder than the next,’ says an Afghan man. By the fifth you have to stand, three men on each other’s shoulders. Then you haul the last man up by rope. You’ve done this? I ask. ‘Of course,’ he shrugs. Shows me the scars from the wire, on his face, his hands, his ripped jacket. Then the police send them back. A fair cop. He lived in Stevenage for nine years before being deported on the 26th March of this year. After 11 days at home he fled again: ‘Taliban everywhere,’ with his two younger brothers. It cost them £36000 to get out. He dropped them off in Germany. They’re under 18 and being fostered by a family, ‘They’re happy.’ But he wants to return to the UK. He showed us his British driving licence. He will try again tonight. Five fences, then jump on a goods train or find a place under a stationary lorry. Or not. If he makes it, he’ll claim asylum immediately. ‘I don’t want to be illegal. I’ve never had nothing, no benefits, I work.’

Mish Mish is also from Afghanistan. Older, he has adopted his two year old boy’s nickname for food. He wears the toddlerism like a protective badge. He hasn’t seen him for months. He left, to try to get to England so he can send for his family. He asks me if I have children so I show him a picture of my own two year old. He looks for a long time. ‘She is yellow hair!’ He can’t show me his – the French police took his phone with all his pictures on it. He tells me he managed to speak to his family the night before. His boy, Akhbar, asked him when he would be coming back to play with him again. Then he asked him why his voice sounded funny. Mish Mish mimed holding the phone away from his head while tears streamed down his face. He couldn’t tell him why. The older man’s heart is already broken, he is trying to preserve his son’s.