In London, theatre is helping four young refugees process trauma
The first time Talal Hasan met Omar Almahel they slept side by side on a piece of cardboard at a train station in Brussels. Not long after this the pair climbed a bridge, jumped onto a fence below and manoeuvred themselves between carriages on a London bound Eurostar, hiding beneath the seats when ticket inspectors came down the aisle.
At just 17 and 18-years-old the two young men had already undertaken an incredible journey from Darfur, a region in western Sudan that has been rocked by war since 2003. Omar paid a smuggler to take him to Libya but woke up in Chad. He was then sent back to Sudan then onto Egypt where he travelled through the desert to get to Tripoli before taking a boat to France and eventually Belgium.
In the day both young men attend school in the UK capital but whether they can stay permanently is a decision that rests in the hands of British authorities. Whilst Talal has been offered permanent residency, Omar is still waiting for his: “It’s been 10 months since we arrived,” he says, “and we are still waiting. Is this ok? It takes up a lot of our thinking. Without papers a person isn’t free”.
One way Talal and Omar have been able to process what they’ve been through and come to terms with their new surroundings is a recently discovered love of acting – they have both landed main parts alongside professional dancer Sylvia Ferreira in an upcoming production that debuted at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as part of Refugee Week.
Fragments is a passionate, energetic performance that draws on music and dance from their home country Sudan, and from Syria, where the other two young men in the show, brothers Tariq and Talal Alkhatib, are from. It is an interpretation of their first impression of arriving in London, the chaos of resettlement that ensued and questions how a person comes to terms with who they are away from home.
It all began when Palestinian actor Mo’min Swaitat received a phone call from a friend working for the Single Homeless Project (SHP) – a London based charity which aims to prevent homelessness – asking him to translate for Talal and Omar who had been discovered by a cleaner on the train in St Pancras International the night before.
When Swaitat knocked on the door of their flat Talal covered his face and wouldn’t make direct eye contact. “They had no idea where they were at, they had no idea even of the name of the city,” recalls Swaitat. “They didn’t know where they were on the map, they didn’t know the time.”
Swaitat told his friend he wasn’t an interpreter but that he could teach them clowning, mask work, mime and theatre exercises through intensive, interactive workshops once a week. “Basically to rebuild what they lost,” says Swaitat, “and colour their eyes because it was completely dark for them”.
“This project is a space where they come to just let go of all of this systematic madness of the governmental organisations because there are a lot things to think about, all of this paperwork,” he continues. “It is really important, it gives them a safe environment to talk about their issues and talk about how they feel with all of this pressure on them from the Home Office.”
As a young Palestinian from Jenin growing up during the second intifada Swaitat himself had two options – to join the resistance or stay at home and do nothing. He chose a third option, drama, and began to train as an actor at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp which uses art to address the fear, depression and trauma experienced by young Palestinians.
“I wanted to generate some hope for these young boys who arrived in this massive city that is not for them, that is not designed for them. I want to bring back some hope to these kids. I feel with them, I understand them, I went on the same journey and I want to give them my experience,” he says.
When Swaitat moved to London he studied at the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA) which offers training based on the teachings of Jacques Lecoq, a French actor, mime and instructor who used masks as a learning tool for actors.
The neutral mask represents the hero or the heroine journey, says Swaitat, taking a brown mask out of a plastic tub and smoothing his hand over it. “It’s leather,” he says, offering it to me.
The story behind the neutral mask is based on an ancient Greek legend in which the protagonist is forced to leave his town after it is burned to the ground. Along his journey he arrives at the top of a mountain and looks back at his home which is completely destroyed. He can either return or keep going into the unknown – he chooses the future, the unknown, says Swaitat.
Given all that they’ve been through it is fitting, then, that this mask and the story that goes with it was one of the first elements he introduced the young men to: “This mask takes all of your awareness and physicality and shows it off. Whatever you do you are a hero when you wear this mask. It gives you total physical relief and makes you understand the difference between different spaces in this universe,” explains Swaitat.
As these weekly workshops turned into weekly rehearsals for Fragments the group met every Wednesday at the New Diorama Theatre near Regent’s Park in a space around the back of the stage that has been built out of wood with glass doors on either end.
A week and a half before the final performance the rehearsal begins against the backdrop of Arab melodies being played through a flute. The multiple scenes all morph into one another – Talal Alkhatib sits in a barber’s chair whilst the others pretend to shave him; they carry him on their shoulders then lie him on the ground and cover his face with a white cloth; they move into the centre one by one to perform a solo.
About half way through the actors line up wearing their masks, link arms and stamp their right feet in what should be a synchronised movement. But they can’t hit the right spot so Swaitat rises, pushes himself into the middle and encourages the group to coordinate. He instructs them to face one another, breathe and relax. They reassemble in the line and try again.
As they take a break Swaitat recalls taking the four of them to the Royal Court Theatre to see the Syrian play “Goats” by Liwaa Yazji. Set in a small village in Syria during the relentless war the families of dead soldiers are given goats as compensation. The two Talals, Tariq and Omar described it as a magical experience which brought them to a new universe. “They felt so safe inside the theatre,” says Swaitat.
It’s hard for them to completely relax when Omar’s status is still a pending decision rather than a firm promise. Talal Hasan says he’s happy he has received permission to stay in the UK but that he will not celebrate until Omar is offered the same.
Still, whilst their futures in this country hang in the balance they both have a new calling in life. The stage.
“It gets us excited,” says Omar. “I’d like to be a director,” adds Talal. “Like you,” he says, pointing at Swaitat. “We are very proud to be actors in a theatre like this… we see it as a big step.”
Published in Middle East Monitor