The community theatre play “Going to the Neighbours’ House’ was performed in an attempt to create awareness of the status of refugees in Egypt. The project was initiated by the Psychosocial Training Institute of Cairo (PSTIC) at the American University in Cairo (AUC), affiliated with Terre des Hommes and the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS). The play is performed in Arabic and is sponsored by the Netherlands Embassy. It was staged at the Nahda Cultural and Scientific Association, the Rawabet Theatre and the Mubarak Centre and was put on in a wedding hall, located out in Kilo Arbaa we Noss, in coordination with Saint Bekhita school on 29 November.
The play starts with a group of Egyptians on a picnic when they spot a tall, black man. They get suspicious and start with the usual jokes and the audience in the theatre promptly laughs. The Egyptians are divided upon what they should do. Sympathetic to the stranger who seems lost and hungry, they invite him over and attempt to speak to him in Arabic but he does not understand. As more arrive to have a picnic of their own, they talk to them and uncover the secrets of what it means to be a refugee and what their lives are like.
The idea to create the play came from Dr Nancy Baron, director of the Global Psycho-Social Initiatives (GPSI). Her programme, PSTIC, helps train refugees to do psycho-social work within their communities.
“One of the major issues they complained about is that they don’t have enough food, good schools for their children, they can’t work and life is very rough here but they could cope with all of that if only people would be nice to them. If people would understand who they are, treat them like good neighbours and recognise that they’re not here to take anything away from them but because they can’t be at home and that their lives are not safe,” Baron explained.
The play is a result of a collaborative workshop between five Egyptian actors and eight social workers from the refugee communities of Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Iraq. The workshop was facilitated by Jacob Lindfors and Diana Calvo, over a period of three months, with one six-hour day per week.
“The workshop went smoothly. People have been open towards each other,” says Lindfors.
Many of the tragedies of the refugees have been screened from the Egyptian public. The stigma regarding refugees and specifically those with a darker skin tone has been almost completely overlooked in Egypt. Egyptians don’t think of themselves as particularly racist; the term itself does not really carry much weight.
Egyptian actor Ali Sobhy confessed that he ‘found out most things about refugees during the workshop’.
Through the play we see refugees lined up at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) office for help they cannot obtain. Their children are not allowed admission to Egyptian schools or colleges and cannot enter refugee schools before the age of four, even though parents need to work very hard to earn enough money for their shelter. Furthermore there are many constraints that restrict their ability to move to other countries.
Despite the controversial subject matter, the play was very tame. On the one hand, it started well, depicting the stigma regarding refugees, but did not manage to drive certain points home hard enough. Issues like the marginalisation of refugees and mistreatment by their neighbours, landlords and employers were not shown.
Baron explains, “We tried to talk about the refugee situation in a way we felt people would be able to hear us. We also tried to be empathetic to the fact that Egyptians also have a hard life. We’ve tried to show the similarity between people rather than show the differences.”
Furthermore, there was no criticism of laws or regulations. “The purpose is not to criticise governments. We’re not giving out a political message but a personal one,” says Baron.
Many of the ideas presented in the play were cleverly done on stage. Water bottles from the picnic were transformed into guns and the pots transformed into helmets as we saw the story of a refugee who was tortured by his government for calling for freedom. It was ironic to think that these persecuted freedom- fighters and survivors of atrocities are met with disrespect from a people that should most appreciate the fight for freedom.
Overall the play was informative and entertaining. It tackles the much ignored issue of refugees in Egypt and opens some sort of discussion about their situation. According to UNHCR there are over 42,000 recognised refugees in Egypt, but the number of refugees who have yet to be granted this internationally- recognised status varies between 500,000 and three million.
“Our hope is to get into Egyptian neighborhoods. It takes a bit of effort to try and figure out where it can go. We’d like it to play in universities, high schools, cultural centres and community theatres,” says Baron.
The play will be performed through to December with a possibility of expansion.