Refugee voices take centre stage at UK theatre company

AFP , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

​In a darkly lit arts studio in London, five young actors highlight their scripts and go over their lines: the latest cast of Phosphoros Theatre, a company that empowers refugees and asylum seekers to tell their story on stage.

(Photos: AFP)

"Nobody knows the story like you, the way you lived or the way you came here, you're the only one who knows", said Ismael Mohammed. 

Mohammed was just 16 when he made his way to the UK unaccompanied from east Africa. Now 20, he said joining Phosphoros has helped build his self-confidence. 

He remembers being shy in college in the UK, and unable to speak in front of the class but he now performs on stage in venues up and down the country.

The latest Phosphoros production, "Tender", tells the story of a group of refugee friends in London.

It focuses on the financial pressures faced by people in their situation, and the importance of friendship in overcoming that and other challenges.

Co-artistic director and former refugee case worker Kate Duffy-Syedi said the company aims to change widespread perceptions in the UK.

"Refugee young people are viewed as criminalised and kind of brutalised, or as vulnerable victims that do not have their own agency", she added. 

By putting the refugees at the heart of the creative process, Phosphoros give them back their voice, she said.

"I really shared my experience and thoughts onto the stories", said Abel, a young Ethiopian refugee. 

"It was also therapeutic for me to show others and be a voice for myself."

Phosphoros Theatre was co-founded by Duffy-Syedi and her TV and playwright mother Dawn Harrison in 2015, after drama workshops in a housing project hosting refugees gained momentum.

Fast-forward eight years, their rehearsals are taking place against an increasingly divisive political backdrop. 

- Understanding -

The UK parliament recently passed the government's controversial "Safety of Rwanda" bill, intended to expedite plans to send asylum seekers who "illegally" reach UK soil to the African nation.

The legislation is British leader Rishi Sunak's answer to a Supreme Court ruling last year that sending migrants to Rwanda contravened international law. 

It compels judges to treat Rwanda as a safe third country and gives UK ministers powers to disregard sections of international and British human rights legislation.

The evolving situation has not gone unnoticed by the young actors.

"They are saying they are going to send refugees to Rwanda, which is very sad", said Ismael Mohammed. 

"A lot of people, when they came to this country, it's not for a good life, it's for safety. So they should accept them."

For Abel, it's not just politics, but large parts of the UK media that are to blame.

"The media only pictures negative things or only gives negative thoughts to the public" regarding refugees and asylum seekers, he added.

"Theatre helps in those terms, by educating people about it, and having like this open conversation and learning what other people are experiencing in their journey."

Phosphoros's fifth touring show, "Tender", will soon begin a domestic tour that will see it play in the central and northwestern cities of Derby and Manchester, as well as London.

Duffy-Syedi explained their work has met with positive engagement from audience members everywhere they have performed over the years.

"We're not doing case work, we're not solving legal cases” she noted.

"But we are finding spaces where stories about forced migration, about hope for the future, positive representations of refugees and asylum seekers, are being heard on a large, national level."

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