Asylum aside: making it real

Sonja Linden
20 June 2008

As a very young girl, in my bed at night I would to try and imagine how I would act if, like my parents, I had to live under Hitler's murderous regime. There was only one answer, my childish self reasoned: remove ‘the source of the evil'. No matter that Hitler was already dead. I can still see my imagined self, gun in outstretched hand, about to complete my self-imposed mission. Somewhat grandiose, I admit, yet as I write this I realise that my concern with eliminating Hitler was part and parcel of what was to become my ‘bystander' complex. My German Jewish mother remained bitter that ordinary Germans witnessed the deportation of their Jewish neighbours from behind net curtains, yet did nothing. My German ‘Aryan' father, a political activist against Nazism throughout the 1930s, saw this as the unsurprising paralysis of normal human behaviour under such a vicious regime. The tension between these two voices has remained with me ever since: the need to decry, balanced against the hesitation to condemn unthinkingly.

This article forms part of MigrantVoice on refuge, a special project celebrating UK Refugee Week 2008.Have your say on our multiauthored blog, bringing unheard voices to the forefront of the debate. Also in openDemocracy:

Podcast: World Refugee Day,

Saskia Sassen, "The power of the powerless"

Rahila Gupta, "The pull factor"

Liza Schuster, "Europe's shameful directive"

Zrinka Bralo, "Asylum and health: insult and injury"

Philippe Legrain, "Open Britain"

Irshad Manji, "For a future bigger than our past"

Mamphela Ramphele, "The rainbow nation's lesson"

Hsiao-Hung Pai, "Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow"

Brian K Murphy, "Open borders, global future"

I now see that removing ‘the source of evil' is not the panacea I once imagined. What sustains oppressive regimes such as Hitler's Germany, is not just the machinery of terror that holds them in place, but the disempowerment of an entire people through ignorance and poverty. It is this that allows a lumpenproleriat to build and bulwark such regimes. Access to information and humane living conditions alone set people free, enabling them to disengage from oppressive ideologies. In a society as ‘liberal' as ours in the UK, if we are to maintain more than lip-service to a just and cohesive society, this is still what is needed. Such information comes in many guises, and it was to the arts that my childhood fantasy of killing Hitler ultimately brought me.

In 2003 I formed iceandfire theatre company to give voice to the dispossessed, and to bridge the misinformation gap about those on the margins of our society, refugees like my parents, and those seeking asylum. The plight of this community first came to my attention when I became writer in residence at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I was prepared to help their clients write out their stories of persecution, political imprisonment and torture. What I hadn't expected was an almost equal outpouring of shock at how they have been received in this country - their sense of isolation, insecurity and alienation. All had arrived with hopes of respite, all had stories to tell of their disillusionment and their encounter with what Amnesty have called in a recent report, ‘the culture of disbelief' that pervades the British Home Office.

iceandfire was formed to put these stories into the public domain, originally in the form of fictional dramas - plays such as I Have Before Me A Remarkable Document Given to me by a Young Lady from Rwanda, and Crocodile Seeking Refuge - inspired by the real-life encounters between individual asylum seekers and members of the host community. I was undeniably on a mission to counter the negative media hype and hostile government rhetoric that has been so damaging to the British concept of asylum. I sought to do this by presenting asylum seekers as engaging and spirited individuals, warts and all, but above all to present them in a context - showing why they were forced to flee their countries of origin, what they have been compelled to leave behind, and how we and our strange world appear to them.

In both plays it was important to contrast their struggle for acceptance here, with the horrors they have fled from. My central character, Zakariya, in Crocodile Seeking Refuge, who has been tortured as a suspected Darfur rebel in his native Sudan and whose family have been burned alive when their village was set on fire by the Janjaweed militia - is ultimately refused asylum. The play climaxes with him facing the prospect of further torture, if not death, when deported back to Sudan. Hopefully, by then to my audience, he is not just another ‘failed asylum seeker'.

When his lawyer Harriet is presented with her next client - a sadistic former guard from one of Khomeinei's notorious prisons, among the questions I wanted to leave hanging at the end of the play are: will Harriet now defend a perpetrator? And will this woman ‘pass' the asylum test when Zakariya ‘failed' it? Harriet's marriage also hangs in the balance, threatened by her over-commitment to her work. Harriet's story is an illustration of what can happen when beleaguered professionals like her step over the professional line in their dedication to their clients - in Harriet's case inviting her destitute Darfuri client to live with her and her husband. The harshness of our asylum system does not just impact on asylum seekers, but also on those dedicated professionals bent on gaining justice for them.

These are just some of the urgent dilemmas and choices I have woven into my plays, drawn from the complexity of individual stories. The Darfuri whose words and experiences I included was moved to tears when he saw aspects of his story onstage, but he also laughed out loud when he recognised himself in a dinner party scene, heartily regaling a vegetarian fellow guest with a detailed account of how to spit-roast flayed hedgehogs! The young woman who inspired my Rwanda play, said that what she loved most about it was the fact that I had managed to inject humour into such a dark and difficult story, and that ‘her' character was so feisty. Feedback from the holders of the remarkable and disturbing stories that I have been privileged with, has been a hugely encouraging endorsement in the development of my work. One of the reasons I shifted from an earlier verbatim version to fictional drama was to allow for more rounded characters than sometimes emerge from first person monologues. The playwriting journey is an ongoing quest for the richness of what it is to be human.

In the six years since its inception, iceandfire has been on its own journey to ‘create compelling theatre that makes real and relevant the impact of human rights issues on our everyday lives.' The big question remains: can theatre alter people's perceptions, let alone their actions, with regard to issues such as these? Or are we just ‘preaching to the converted?' Quantitative research in the form of questionnaires, carried out on our 2006 UK tour of Crocodile Seeking Refuge, showed that over half our audience had come to see the play for reasons other than an interest in ‘asylum', with 85% of respondents feeling that the play had made them more aware of the issues involved. Just under half, at 47%, even felt at the time that the play would make them more actively engaged with refugee and asylum issues. Sara Masters, my co-Artistic Director, also attempted some quantitative research on the impact as part of an MA in Human Rights. The statistical difference between people's engagement in the issue of asylum before and after seeing the play, she found, was nominal. But what people did communicate was their engagement with the work.

One audience participant stated: "It made me think that there are actually a lot of reasons to go to the theatre... If anything else like that came up I'd definitely go and watch it because I really enjoyed it. So - asylum aside - that is the sort of play I'd go to." First and foremost, we are trying to engage people for artistic as well as campaigning ends, and this dual current runs through all aspects of our work.

All our productions have been accompanied by an education pack and a workshop run by the actors. But we wanted to do more in schools on how an understanding of the ‘other' can change perspectives. Separated, by Sara Masters, is about the encounter between two 15 year-old school boys, one an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, one from Britain, and the emotional crossover between them as they discover what they have in common. The play, as seen by 3,000 London teenagers, explores the notion of separation through the Afghani youth's horrifying backstory as well as the challenges facing a mixed-race youngster from Hillingdon when his parents' marriage breaks down. Thanks to the creation of portable, low-tech and even no-tech productions, we were able to bring the play straight into the school. Our pioneering national outreach network, called Actors for Human Rights, was the brainchild of Christine Bacon, a key player in a similar network in Australia before she came to study Refugee Studies at Oxford University. Within two years, we had 300 actors and musicians donating their time and their public profile to giving a voice to people whose basic human rights have been violated. They perform readings of short documentary plays with post-show discussions at the request of organisations all around the country - wherever there is a venue and an audience.

Our first script, Asylum Monologues, like all our subsequent Monologues, is a ‘verbatim play': the words spoken by the actors are taken from actual testimony, in this case from Zimbabwean, Jamaican and Rwandan asylum seekers in the UK. The impact on audiences of hearing first hand accounts, in particular of the experience of detention and forced removal, is palpable, and borne out both by the remarkable audience feedback we have received and the huge demand for the show since it was launched in 2006.

From the community of interest that it has created around refugee and asylum issues, word of mouth ensures that the network now performs the piece once a week on average. We have performed to health professionals, university students and commercial lawyers, always with the same impact, and not only on the audiences. Actors tell us that performing Asylum Monologues has given them new knowledge of the complexities of asylum, and thus the confidence to be more vocal ambassadors for both the issues and the network.

For this year's Refugee Week we are launching two new documentary plays: on June 21 - Rendition Monologues highlighting the testimonies of 4 of the victims of ‘extraordinary rendition' including that of British resident Binyam Mohamed who is still in Guantanamo Bay; on June 22 - Asylum Dialogues - telling the stories of three asylum seekers and the three British people whose friendship changed their fortunes. In the pipeline for the second half of 2008 are Illegals and Palestine Monologues.

The latter is a companion piece to our next theatre production - Welcome to Ramallah - co-scripted by Adah Kay and myself. Written to mark the 60th anniversary this year of the end of the British mandate in Palestine, this play extends iceandfire's remit beyond that of refugees in the UK, to the displacement of Jews as a result of the Holocaust, and of Palestinians as a result of the founding of the State of Israel. It features two British born Jewish sisters, and two Palestinians, uncle and nephew, trapped together one night under curfew in the Occupied Territories. Palestine Monologues aims to fill the information gaps left by the play and contains both factual information and testimonies of individuals across the Israel/Palestine divide.

In 2007 we added a 4th strand to our work. In addition to ‘theatre', ‘education' and ‘outreach', we now have ‘participation' which ranges from Children in Exile, a movement and sound project for early years children from a refugee background to our Protect the Human national playwriting competition which we partner with Amnesty (currently open for submissions until August 1st). Through this national initiative we hope to reach out to new writers and fresh inspiration. So far, we have managed to maintain our productivity and our integrity in an economic climate that is increasingly tough for small companies such as ours, forced to depend on the vagaries of grant-funding bodies. Our continued existence beyond 2008, it has to be said, is as precarious as those whose stories we have dedicated ourselves to communicating.

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