Berlin's refugees express hardships through theatre and dance

Rowan El Shimi from Berlin, Wednesday 23 Oct 2013

On the last day of Festiwalla, Syrian and refugees from other nationalities stage a performance portraying their suffering and lack of freedom in Germany

Berlin refugees performance
Impulse project, with a performance by Berlin refugees (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

A gathering in the form of a theatre festival dubbed 'Festiwalla' ended on Sunday 20 October in Berlin with a contemporary dance performance by Syrian refugees, among others from different countries, featuring theatrical elements to depict the issues asylum seekers face in Europe's strongest economic power.

"Impulse is a project to give impulses, it's a way to better express yourself," said Maryam Grassmann, a coordinator of the project and worker in the camp hosting more than 600 refugees. "Art gives them a way to get to know which voice they have in Germany and, more importantly, that they have a voice here."

The project, carried out by the 'Motardstrasse' refugee camp coordinators along with contemporary dance choreographers Gianna Grunig and Franziska Roelli, as well as theatre director Ahmed Schah, has been taking place for six months.

The artists worked with the refugees on expressing the frustrations they face in their everyday lives as refugees, along with repressed emotions from their past.

The process was documented into a 30-minute moving documentary film by Susanne Dzeik, and shown in Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of Cultures of the World), where Festiwalla's events were hosted prior to the performance.

In the film, the project's staff members tell their story of trying to create safe spaces for the participants to form a group -- a new family – where they can share their emotions and tales.

"It's not easy to motivate people because of this situation where they wait and do not have a daily routine, without knowing if they can stay or have to move on. Also knowing you left something behind..." Grunig says in the film. "It's hard to convince them that this could be good for them."

The Motardstrasse is the first reception institution for asylum seekers where they stay a maximum of nine months until their residence status is cleared and they see if they will be allowed to stay or must leave the country. German law also dictates that refugees are assigned a specific city to live in, which makes it difficult because when they leave Berlin, they have to start over building a life once again.

With the difficulty of finding work, and this constant waiting, a group of Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani and other men joined the project and started to experiment with movement -- without past history of artistic activities.

"It is some sort of coping," Grunig continues. "If you feel well in your body, you'll be in better mental conditions; [whether it is] connected to their experience or not, I noticed that there is severe tension in their bodies."

In a series of movements, signifying the displacement they feel, the group performs an emotional 30 minute piece also characterised by somewhat political undertones. They use their bodies to show the rejection they feel from society, the never-ending administrative paperwork they go through, and remind people at the end that the Human Rights Declaration's 13th Article reads: Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

"I see theatre as the only way to show German and European people what life [is like as] a foreigner here; it's about suffering," said Ibrahima Belde, one of the participating refugees who had never experimented with theatre before this project.

The performance was also attended by the families from Motardstrasse who came all the way to support their fellow refugees in their performance, although they had already seen it when it was performed at the camp.


Ibrahima's case

Following the performance, the actors and project staff took to the stage and drew the audience's attention to an important fact: Ibrahima -- who gave an impeccable performance -- was to be sent away from Berlin, after seven months, to Dortmund.

"It is very hard for our group that he has to leave," Grassman said, explaining how Germany deals with refugees. "Even if he has family or contacts here in Berlin, he still has to leave."

As it announced its resolve in preparing a petition to get Ibrahima to stay, the group demonstrated the project's success: not only did it help open a window of expression to these refugees, but also formed a strong bond within the group allowing them to become friends, even family, to each other.

"We want to show that young people who [could] be integrated do not have the possibility to become so," Grassman continued. "[A refugee] starts to make his roots here and with his [forced departure] it's like cutting up the roots."

"I don't know anybody there in Dortmund. This is my family now; this theatre, Festiwalla and the refugee group," Ibrahima said, overwhelmed by the support and cheers.

Berlin refugees performance
Ibrahima Blade (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

The performance and the film were simultaneously moving and light-hearted. Most importantly, both served to humanise refugees and give them a voice in society.

Under the theme "Who is not educated?" the topics these youths covered in their plays, films, discussions and other activities ranged from protests, to water consumption, history of social democracy, gender roles and many others.

"The youth – coached by the Festiwalla team -- are the directors and researchers of these plays," Schah, one of the founders told Ahram Online.

As well as hosting the youth theatre, Grenzen-Los! also run NARI (Network Against Anti-Muslim Racism and Islamophobia) addressing anti-Muslim racism within German society – issues around which they host various exhibitions and plays.

To conclude the Festiwalla days, Schah announced that all refugees in Berlin were welcome in their space in Moabit every Wednesday to create theatre pieces and be part of the association.

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