The kids in the lecture room in Heidelberg University were giggling as they acted out their play. They all mimed getting into the back of a lorry, then shushed as the other kids playing the smugglers at the wheel, shouted at them to keep quiet. The grown ups in the audience collectively held their breath as their children crept, quiet as mice, out of the back of the truck; then traffickers growled: “There’s your boat!”
This was our Kaleidoscope workshop, a therapeutic radio drama writing project for Syrian refugees. We bring together groups of exiled Syrians. Over three days, they are taught episodic radio drama writing by a former editor of the The Archers, a long-running BBC educational soap opera set in rural England. The participants share their stories then improvise 15 minute radio plays. What made this play so powerful was that every child in the workshops had crossed from Turkey to Greece in one of those rubber dinghies you see on the news.
For the last four years, we’ve been producing combined psycho-social support and advocacy projects with drama, for Syrian refugees. We’ve been working in Jordan, and now the UK and Europe as well. Our projects help refugees overcome trauma, depression and isolation and give them a platform to tell their stories to the world.
Kaleidoscope is one of two projects we are producing at the moment. So far we have run workshops in Scotland, Southampton and Germany, and hope to spread to Greece, Jordan and Lebanon.
Our second current project, If Music Be the Food of Love, is a music workshop for a group of Syrian and Jordanian children in Jordan, in which they’ve composed a rap song about being a refugee, funded by the World Food Programme, and run by our local Jordanian team. We’re making films about both these projects which can go on TV.
It was a friend at Oxfam who inspired us to start this work; she’d heard of a therapeutic drama project we’d done with slum kids in Nairobi, and said: “I wish you could think of something for our Syrian refugees!”
I’m a journalist by background, and have met probably thousands of refugees over the years, in Bosnia, the former Soviet Union, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea – even the UK. Refugees are often lonely, depressed, bored and broke. They’ve lost their family, their home, their life, and their very sense of who they are. They’ve also all undergone a hideous experience that someone could make a Hollywood movie about, and nobody cares. And I’m hack enough to understand that ‘Syrian refugee has a horrible time’ is not news. But ‘Syrian refugee puts on a famous play, and it’s REALLY GOOD!’, gets on CNN. And so the Syrian Trojan Women Project was designed both to help people psychologically, and to give them platform to tell the world what hell feels like.
Being classicists, ‘The Trojan Women’ was the first play we thought of. Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy was set after the fall of Troy. All the men are dead and the women are in a refugee camp bemoaning their fate. We produced the play in Amman, Jordan, in 2013; in Arabic, with an all-female cast of Syrian refugees, backed by Oxfam. Euripides himself wrote it as an anti-war protest against an atrocity committed by his home state of Athens. The Syrians in our cast worked their own stories of exile and loss into the play. The resulting performance was extraordinarily powerful, as the women were essentially playing themselves. It was so successful artistically, that the cast toured the UK last summer (2016) with the Young Vic as Queens of Syria. They got standing ovations in 12 different cities, and a five star review in the Times. (see Queens of Syria - 'I have a scream I want the world to hear' Guardian review here)
As a psycho-social support project, Syria: The Trojan Women also seemed to work. We brought together a group of lonely, often very depressed women; at the beginning they were quivering, clutching their handbags and children, all they had left Syria carrying. Six weeks later they were busy self-important career women; they even went on strike before the performance to demand more pay! Four years later, they are all still friends; they say they have a new family, a new identity. They call themselves the Queens of Syria. They are a tough and impressive bunch.
We shot a documentary about the project, also Queens of Syria, which won many awards and was broadcast on BBC Arabic, magnifying by a factor of millions the project’s outreach. Projects followed as swiftly as we could raise the funding. The radio drama, We Are All Refugees, set in a Syrian refugee camp, written and acted by a joint Syrian and Jordanian team and backed by the UNHCR. It was broadcast on Radio SouriaLi (a Syrian emigree station), BBC Arabic, and, in English, as Welcome to Zaatari, on BBC Radio 4. Next came Oliver! in Arabic, the first ever Arabic-language version of Lionel Bart’s great musical, with a junior cast of Syrian refugee children and under-privileged Jordanian kids. The boy who played Oliver said: “this play is about a kid fighting for his rights, just like me!’ The accompanying documentary is in post-production. Next came the UK tour of Queens of Syria, and its documentary, ‘The World To Hear!” is out now.
Next month, in Aberdeen, we will be bringing together the Syrians who attended our drama writing workshops to record one of their plays in Arabic for broadcast. From this group of radio plays, covering the Syrian refugee crisis from Raqqa to Glasgow, we hope to create a new Syrian radio drama that will run for two years and be broadcast worldwide. The Syrian refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian disaster of our times. We have a duty to let its victims speak.
Charlotte Eagar- journalist, producer and contributing editor to Newsweek wrote this personal view for the CDAC Network.