A British actress uses songs, puppets and disarmingly introspective honesty to open a conversation on refugees, life in Europe’s camps, and the ambiguous role of privileged volunteers.
Ellen Muriel found herself volunteering in Europe's refugee camps right at the tail end of the so-called 'summer of migration' in late 2015, when more than one million refugees were reported making it onto European shores. Six months later she returned to England and refocused her energies on increasing the empathy for refugees in ‘host’ societies. A former theatre student from southwest England, she wrote a play – You, Me, and the Distance Between Us – a critically acclaimed, one-woman show that relates both her experiences and those of some of the refugees she befriended. Startlingly nuanced and intimate, she dissects the moral ambiguity of being a volunteer while using puppets and songs to pull audiences into the frustration of having nowhere to go. She's now on break from touring after taking the show across Britain and Germany.
Cameron Thibos: Welcome to openDemocracy. Let's start off with you telling us a bit about yourself and the genesis of this project. What put you on the road to activism?
Ellen Muriel: I started volunteering just over a year ago, in October 2015. It happened by chance. I was visiting theatre festivals in Europe to try and get inspiration for the kind of theatre I wanted to be a part of. I went to Athens to visit some friends, and after seeing what was happening on the news I thought I should volunteer for a while.
I went to Lesvos, and quickly became involved in a grassroots, small-scale initiative called Starfish. It was based in a town called Molyvos, and was made up of independent volunteers and tourists who had seen what was happening and then stayed on from their holidays.
At first I stayed for two weeks, returned to England, then went back because I felt that I wasn't finished with this experience. I found it really difficult to be at home knowing that there was such a great need for volunteers out there. The big organisations hadn't arrived yet, and the independent small groups were understaffed and disorganised. October was the month when the most refugees arrived on Lesvos. Our camp, which was just on one side of the island, averaged 4000-5000 new arrivals per day. Considering that this camp was in the car park of a night club, that's a lot.
Cameron: You recount your first experience at this camp in the play, when you cut your teeth in the clothing tent. For those who haven't seen the play, can you explain what that was like?
Ellen: I started off working in the clothes tent. Nobody wanted to work there because it was complete chaos, so I volunteered to create some sort of system. At first the scale of it was overwhelming. You see so many people come through in one day, and you think, 'this simply cannot continue on this level. How are there enough people in the world for it to continue on this level?' And yet it does.
But you also get better at what you're doing with time. You start to create systems, and to fix problems. For example, we had all these warehouses full of clothes, but we only had one car. How can we improve that? Or asking, 'how do we make sure that people don't have to be wet for so long? At the moment they're waiting on the beaches for an hour, and when they get to camp, the queue is so long that they remain wet and cold for two hours. How do we minimise this timeline?'
They queue for food…
It’s really satisfying to find these little, practical things where you can make some change. Over time you learn that you can't take on this whole crisis, and you can't make a difference to people at every step of the way. But you can help make this camp the best it possibly can be, so that for this one day of their journey, it's the best it can be. Once I learned to scale in on that, it all became much easier to deal with.
Cameron: You spent two months in Greece, then volunteered for a month in Calais' jungle camp, and then helped set up a group called SolidariTea. This group and its project of handing out free tea sits large in your play. Could you retell the story of SolidariTea for us?
Ellen: I set up SolidariTea with four other friends I met in Lesvos. We wanted to find a way to transfer the skills we learned there into another way to help. A friend came up with the idea of having a caravan or a truck – something that we could live in – and that would allow us to be really adaptable. We could then go from camp to camp to see where and what the need was. We also asked 'what can we give?' Rather than simply showing up to volunteer, we thought by having something to give we would remain useful even if we discovered the camps were really well set up.
We decided to do tea and soup. It was the middle of winter, and we had already seen in Lesvos what a difference it can make to give out hot food. We started in Germany and drove down along the so-called Balkan route through the different borders. We worked in a few places for short periods, but weren’t allowed into many camps as they were heavily guarded by the military. So after a few false starts we were able to really trial our idea in Belgrade. There were quite a few people living homeless in the park there. The borders had closed by this point, and a lot of people were stuck. There was no camp in Belgrade where people could stay overnight, just one that was open during the day. So we set up here for a few weeks, gave out tea, but there were only a few hundred people living in the park. It was really calm, casual and nice. We got to know a lot of the refugees, and we were able to create a nice space for people to sit and talk. And then we went to Idomeni and it all completely changed.
Cameron: Idomeni and your tea tent probably comprise the single biggest setting in your play. What happened there?
Ellen: I still find this hard to believe, but apparently we got through 10 boxes of cups a day there, which means we were handing out 10,000 cups of tea every single day. I suppose it makes sense. I would get up at 7 am to turn the pots on, they were ready to go by 8 am, and then we'd be giving out tea continuously until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning.
We had one of those dispensers with a tap at the bottom, and normally – in a cafe – somebody would turn the tap on, pour the tea, and then turn the tap off. But there were so many people that the tap was continuously on from 8 am to 2 am the next day. There always had to be somebody just sitting underneath the tap passing cups underneath it, so it always had a cup to fill up, and all six hobs we had burned non-stop, to make sure there was always new tea to refill the dispenser.
It became a centre of the camp. People knew they could come there. The information tent was set up outside the tea tent, and the kids’ tent got set up outside there, and it became a hub of the community. It was really really lovely.
You, Me, and the Distance Between Us
Cameron: You eventually start to burn out and return to England, and this was when you created your play, You, Me, and the Distance Between Us. What made you decide to create a type of educational / personal experience theatre programme?
Ellen: It started out by seeing some of the ways arts were being used to counter the effects of what was happening. In Lesvos there were some clowning groups that came, and I loved the way they interacted with the kids. They provided this light relief when everybody else was so obsessed with keeping people alive.
Then in Calais people had the basics they needed, but people were just stuck there. It was a really depressing atmosphere. But there was a theatre there, called Good Chance Theatre. They put on workshops every single day, and – yoga, tai chi, art classes, music nights – it was amazing. It made me think that theatre might actually have a place in all this.
I then went to Idomeni, and again people were just stuck there. Day after day after day, they'd just sit inside their tents, waiting, hoping that the next day would be the one in which the border opened. It makes you think: we can give out tea, and we can give out food, but then what? What's next? All these people are stuck here because they want to be somewhere else. But some people do make it to somewhere else – they actually get to where they are going. But then what? Was the journey really worth it? Was everything they went through worth it, if they get to England and people are racist and judgmental?
I began to think about the end of the route, and asked how we could make that better. I can't open the borders, and I can't let everybody through. But what I can do is try and share some of this with the people back home, so they're more likely to engage with this issue. The goal was to help people just start talking about it. I think it's something people really struggle to talk about sometimes, and so people just try to ignore it. I wanted to create an entry point to start discussion, in the hope that people would be more open towards refugees.
Cameron: Speaking of trying to get people to engage, one of the most impressive aspects of this show is how you portray the different motivations of the volunteers you meet, as well as the moral ambiguity of being a volunteer in such a situation. What made you focus on that?
Ellen: I was really confronted by the extent to which ego got in the way of things. There’s just so much internal politics, even in a situation like this. I suppose you find it anywhere, and perhaps because people aren't being paid they need to get value from somewhere else. I don't entirely understand it, but I became fascinated by it. And then, after I got back, people would say: 'wow, you're so amazing for going out there and helping' and 'wow, you've done an incredible thing and you're so selfless'. And I just thought, 'Oh my god! No!' So, I wanted to talk about the people who were going out to help. I felt really passionate about exposing that – about the fact that nobody does anything that doesn't benefit themselves in some way.
At the same time, I wanted to also say that that's ok. There's a fear amongst volunteers about being seen as doing this for themselves. But if you're not being paid to do something, you obviously want to do it otherwise you wouldn't be there. I know I got a lot out of the experience. I learnt so much, and it completely changed my life, the way I looked at the world, and what I want my future to be, and I don't feel that I should have to hide that.
Cameron: Could you describe some of the types of volunteers you portray in the play?
Ellen: One comes to Lesvos for three days from Canada, as a sort of holiday. She's quite full of herself, but also just very naive and excited about the whole situation. She throws herself into the chaos and the drama without really understanding the damage that can be done. This was important because you saw it so often: in Lesvos it was very high drama. People really are getting out of boats, soaking wet, crying – it's crazy, it's chaos, and most people haven't seen anything like that before. It's so easy to get completely carried away with this, and these people really try to play the hero. But the volunteers can sometimes create more drama than the refugees. It made me ask what our role was here, and what have we come to do, if we are allowing ourselves to get carried away and make problems that weren't there before.
They queue for chai.
Another is a woman who's just got a really really big heart. She just really cares. She's got a very quaint accent. She's also one of these 'no borders, no nations' people. In Idomeni especially I met a lot of volunteers who were really there for the protest: they were there because their politics demanded it. I have no reason to judge anyone's motives for going there, so, fair enough. But you'd see these very alternative, anti-establishment people standing in contrast to most of the refugees, who politically felt very different to this. Many were very patriotic, and were quite nationalistic about their countries and their cultures. They wanted to get to Europe to get a good job, and work hard, and earn a lot of money, and have a nice house to bring up their conventional family.
I just found this contradiction so funny, and the refugees seemed very confused by these volunteers as well. People would ask, 'why are you here? Are you being paid to do this?' and when you said 'no', they'd repeat the question: 'so why are you here? Why aren't you at home, in your nice house, doing your job?'
Cameron: How did you respond to that?
Ellen: It's difficult. I'd respond that I wanted to come help people, but they'd keep pressing, saying 'but you have all of these opportunities that we don't have. You could just fly back to England now, and bring up a family in a nice house with nice things, and we're stuck in this camp. But you're choosing to be stuck here with us'.
You'd see a lot of people who just couldn't get their head around that. It made me question it in myself. I think, perhaps, that for everybody who volunteers there, they feel something is missing from this conventional life at home. Everything is so easy in society, we have all this technology to make everything easier and easier, and thus we communicate and connect with people less and less.
A lot of people wouldn't want to admit this, but there's something about going to these situations that strips all that back. You see people living in these camps, in these horrible conditions, yet you start connecting with people, and coming to terms with what's real and important. It's so morally difficult, because it’s just so easy for us to reject this safe, soft, cozy, wrapped in cotton wool, nine-to-five job for the rest of our lives. It's so easy to reject that lifestyle when we have it, so I think that's why people find it so difficult to talk about.
Cameron: You said that some of the refugees had a hard time comprehending volunteers' motives, but did you also encounter suspicion of those motives?
Ellen: I found that the people who are most suspicious of these motives are people back home and other volunteers. In the play I explain how scared I am to speak on behalf of anybody else. I'm so determined not to say 'this is Ahmed, and this is how Ahmed feels in the camp'. Because I have no right to speak on behalf of Ahmed, and I could never truly understand what it’s like to go through what he's gone through.
The days go by.
It's white privilege, and the fear of white people taking up too much space –talking about things they don't have a right to speak about or that they don't truly understand. But when I spoke to some of my good friends, who are refugees, about using their stories in the play or talked to them about the play, they were so supportive. 'Go for it!' they said. 'The fact that you're telling our stories is amazing. Get it out there, that's so cool!' This is something we still have to be incredibly careful about, but I felt that most of the time the refugees I interacted with had a very different set of priorities.
Cameron: I know that some of the refugees whose stories you tell saw the show in Germany. What was their reaction?
Ellen: Two people whom I met in Idomeni came to see the show. I tell one of their stories through the puppets in the end. He doesn’t speak English very well, but he came to see the show in Germany, knowing that part of his story was in it, and his companion translated for him throughout. He was really happy and very complimentary, but he was very frustrated by the fact that audiences come in and watch the show as if it's like a film: a story they can come and look at and then go away again, to get on with their lives. 'But this is our lives', he said. 'This is what we're living, and we can't walk away from it'.
Cameron: That frustration – the inescapable tedium of it all – is the single biggest theme of your play. It's the core of the song you sing throughout the show as well. How did the refrain go?
Ellen: They queue for food / They queue for portaloos / They queue for chai / The days go by.
Cameron: How did you, as a volunteer, experience this frustration? And how did you portray it in the play?
Ellen: It's tough. When people first arrive they have so much energy. In the times I was in these camps, it was very free. There weren't so many organisations there, and there wasn't much state intervention, so it was easy, in a sense. If you had a project and you had an idea, you could roll with it. It’s exciting to say ‘I'm gonna drive a caravan into a camp and give out 10,000 cups of tea a day. And if I'm willing to put the time in, it can just happen!'
But as time goes on, and you get used to making 10,000 cups of tea a day, every day becomes the same. The situation isn't improving – you're just helping people to stay in a shit situation. This becomes exhausting. You realise that this could just go on forever. So for me, when it got to this point I changed projects.
Cameron: So where do you want to take this play now?
Ellen: At the moment I'm feeling quite exhausted from performing. I've been doing it since June, and I think I've done the show just over 30 times. I'm feeling ready to do something else – hopefully something that works directly with refugees and asylum seekers using the arts. Perhaps using theatre to help people integrate into the societies in which they find themselves eventually living. That's the sort of area I'd like to go into next, but I have the show still and I'd really like to take it into schools to see how it goes down with kids: sixth formers, university students, and so forth.