BETHANY RIELLY talks to a group of young refugees who, by using ‘theatre against the odds,’ tell stories that are witty, entertaining and painfully real
WHEN refugees arrive in Britain, they’re often confronted with a very different reality from the one they dreamt about on their long and treacherous journeys. Instead of acceptance, generosity and opportunity, asylum-seekers are met with hostility, disbelief and limited prospects.
Frustrated with being constantly doubted and questioned, a group of young refugees decided to take their stories to the stage and make people understand that they didn’t choose to come to Britain — they had to.
Phosphoros Theatre’s Dear Home Office: Still Pending, the company’s second play in two years, centres on four stories based on the real experiences of 10 young refugees living in Britain.
Through humour, satire and drama, the actors show the difficulties they face trying to build new lives here, from rejected asylum claims to finding housing.
The young men from Eritrea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Albania all came to Britain alone as children. Although most have now been granted refugee status, a few still have pending applications, hence the play’s title. To protect the actors’ anonymity, the young refugees perform each other’s experiences rather than their own.
The story of Somalian refugee Akram, played by Mohammed Shuuriye Muumin, shines a light on the cruelty of the immigration system. After having his asylum claim rejected, Akram is asked by his lawyer to find new evidence to prove that his home is unsafe.
The insensitivity of the solicitor in asking Akram to sift through harrowing images and testimonies from people in his home town gives the audience an idea of how refugees are treated by the system.
In a courtroom scene, the judge suggests removing Akram to another area in Somalia, despite the fact that the British government advises against all travel to the country. At this point his frustration boils over. “Of course I would go back if I could but I can’t,” he cries. “How can you say I am lying when you haven’t been there?”
The need to make people understand their journeys, not only getting to Britain but also navigating a system designed to deport them, is at the centre of why the cast wanted to tell their stories.
Syed Najibi, who plays Afghan refugee Kareem, tells me that he’s met very few people who know about asylum-seekers. “I had a job recently and I asked my boss ‘how much do you know about asylum-seekers?’ And he said nothing, nothing at all,” Syed explains.
“Telling our stories is so important to show that there’s no difference between me and him. We have different language, different skin colour, different culture but it doesn’t matter, that doesn’t mean anything, we are all the same — we are all human.”
The play has given the cast the opportunity to tell their stories on their own terms, without every detail being scrutinised by the Home Office.
“It’s very empowering for them to be able to represent their own stories to audiences,” the play’s writer and director Dawn Harrison tells me. “Because that’s not the dynamic they normally have. The people they talk to are largely people who are disbelieving them like their solicitors, the Home Office and housing people.”
The play follows from the success of Phosphoros Theatre’s first production Dear Home Office which was nominated for an Amnesty Freedom of Expression award and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Due to its success, the actors have since starred in short films, featured in dozens of articles and even spoken on a panel with Lord Dubs. But not all of the attention has been positive and has even verged on the side of being exploitative, an issue explored in the second play through the character of Filmon, played by Goitom Fesshaye.
With aspirations to be a big film star, Filmon auditions for a team of hipster TV producers who want him to play a refugee in the Calais Jungle. But he’s rejected for the part because his face “isn’t refugee enough,” with the producers opting for a Syrian child instead. Dawn tells me she has had to filter a lot of insensitive media requests by journalists and filmmakers who want to “rent a refugee.”
It’s clear to see how protective Dawn and her partner Liam Duffy, the company’s production manager, are of the actors, who they call “our boys.”
Over the past two years the Phosphoros Theatre team — the couple, their daughter Kate and son Jordy, who both act in the play — have been far more than just collaborators with the young refugees. They’ve attended their court hearings, driven them to appointments and even spoken as witnesses. “The production is very holistic and we support them beyond being actors on the stage because they have so many obstacles preventing them being able to engage,” Dawn tells me.
As a result the company’s production team and actors are very close. “I have found a family doing this play,” Syed says.
But Liam stresses that it’s a two-way street. Without the boys, he would never have been part of such a successful and empowering project. “There is a power dynamic between us and the boys but without them we wouldn’t be able to do these amazing things either – they are the real stars,” he tells me.
At the time Phosphoros Theatre formed two years ago, they had no idea whether the play would work. The company began in a supported house in Harrow, London, after six of the refugees living there told Kate, the house’s manager, that they wanted to tell their stories.
With a background in theatre, she suggested that they turn their experiences into a performance and asked her mother, an experienced youth theatre director to get involved.
“Working with a group of young men who had no previous acting experience and are still learning English was a completely different experience,” she says. The team had to overcome many barriers to get the show on the road, from gathering a group of 10 perpetually late participants to finding the time to rehearse in between jobs, college and pending asylum applications. “Kate describes it as ‘theatre against the odds’,” Dawn says. Considering the difficulties the Phosphoros team has faced putting the plays together, the end result is truly remarkable.
Dear Home Office: Still Pending is fast-paced, witty and thoroughly entertaining while also being painfully real.
It’s the authenticity in every element of the play that makes it so powerful. It leaves you far more informed about asylum-seekers than months of news coverage possibly could.
• Dear Home Office: Still Pending will be performed at the Bunker Theatre, London, on December 3 and 4, box office: bunkertheatre.com