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The exiled Syrian actress helping young refugees deal with trauma using theater

Actress Raghad Makhlouf, speaks to Jameela Freitas about how her theatre workshops give young refugees a safe space to express themselves and deal with the stress caused by war and displacement.

Create Syria theater workshop. Picture courtesy of International Alert. Raghad Makhlouf played a leading part in a TV series which addressed the uprising in her homeland Syria and was consequently exiled in Beirut. There are more than one million refugees in Lebanon, half of them are children.

What was life like for you in Syria before the conflict started?

It was very routine and monotonous because of the dictatorship. The Syrian people were forbidden from expressing their thoughts and feelings. We were forbidden from generating change – politically and socially. You can imagine what could happen to a person who is against the Syrian regime from a slogan they released in 2011. It said: “Assad - or we will burn Syria.”

Syria is my home, it’s my friends and my family. But I never felt like a ‘citizen’ in Syria because of the regime and the system – I dreamt of equality, justice and dignity. When the Syrian revolution began I was so happy. I participated in peaceful demonstrations across the country, distributing campaign leaflets in the streets. But because of the Syrian regime and the violence that ensued, revolution turned into war.

What was life like for you as an actor in Syria before the conflict started?

I played a lead role in a TV series which addressed the first seven months of the peaceful revolution and protests in 2011. After filming it in Lebanon some of the actors who went back were investigated by the regime. They couldn’t get out of Syria for several months. The situation worsened when I worked on another TV series called Amal (Hope). It also addressed the peaceful revolution and the violence waged by the Syrian army.

Raghad Makhlouf in a still from the Syrian TV series ‘Abou Khalil Al-Qabbani’ – an epic biography about the founder of Syrian and Arab theater.

Then it became impossible for me to go back to Syria. I had only two options: to be with Assad, or to be in extreme danger – arrested, tortured or killed. So I fled and now my whole family is separated. Each of my two sisters, brother and parents now live in different countries.

Then your 2012 visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan changed your life?

Before the visit I thought I would leave feeling depressed but the opposite happened. The refugees were happy about my visit and show of support. They took me on a tour and were talking about all the suffering but still with a smile and a sense of humour.

This experience changed my attitude to theatre. I started thinking about how it could be useful and how it could influence society. I thought that as acting professionals we should start working with ordinary people more. I thought about their needs, opinions and problems – then built a theatre workshop around it.

Raghad Makhouf. Picture courtesy of International Alert.

Had you done anything similar in Syria before?

I worked in an interactive theatre group touring rural Syria from 2006 onwards. We addressed complicated issues, such as violence against women, education and polygamy. I could see the power of change, especially with young people. After we performed scenes we held discussions, involving the audience in the acting. An ordinary member of the public would enter a scene to change the course of the play.

What was the outcome of this project?

The Syrian regime could see the interactive theatre’s influence on communities. They halted our project after we discussed marriages between different sects. We entered a taboo area, we became afraid and the project stoppe  

Tell me more about your theatre workshops for the young refugees in Lebanon?

It was part of the Create Syria joint project by International Alert, the British Council and Ettijahat Independent Culture to teach drama to young Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian teenagers living in the Bekaa Valley. I worked with fellow actor Wissam al Ghati teaching them for about two months in an intensive workshop, including acting exercises that were touching on their experiences of conflict and war.

Create Syria workshop. Picture courtesy of International Alert.

All their stories are sad and totally unacceptable. They saw dead bodies and their loved ones being killed in front of their eyes. One of my pupils was 10-years-old when the Syrian regime arrested his father at one of the military checkpoints in Damascus. His father said: “Don’t be afraid, I will come back soon.” They both started crying. It’s been four years since, he didn’t come back.

What positive impact did you see from the drama and acting lessons?

We broke a lot of barriers. We built a circle of trust, which improved their self-confidence. When the children gain this they are free to express themselves in a healthy way. The drama classes provided a safe space for the young refugees to freely share their stories and deal with the trauma. It helped make them feel there is hope and their lives have value after all.

What did you personally gain from the Create Syria project?

After three years in Lebanon, I felt I was forgetting everything about Syria. That was devastating. I didn’t want to forget about my homeland, I loved every detail about my life there. Working with young Syrians brings back my treasured memories.

Create Syria workshop. Picture courtesy of International Alert.

What did your young students learn from the experience?

I taught them the main entry points into the acting world. Theatre is a tool for teaching young people communication and conflict resolution skills, as it makes them really listen to one another. I met many uniquely talented teenagers and the lessons helped them rebuild their aspirations through drama and storytelling.

How do theatre workshops improve young refugees’ lives?

Acting can both function to help them process the horrors they experienced or provide a much needed escape from their troubles. Actually, my main goal was to see them laugh, smile and dream again. Drama classes are a tool for traumatised young refugees to discover their abilities and gain a sense of purpose, self-esteem, friendship and belonging. That’s how the magic of theatre gives young refugees the capacity to be positive about their future.

Watch this video of the drama workshops for young refugees.

This article was originally published by The New Internationalist on January 16, 2017.

About the author

Jameela Freitas is a U.K. based journalist and charity communications professional. In addition to writing for International Alert she has also written for charities: Save the Asian Elephants (STAE), Amnesty International UAE, The Salvation Army and WaterAid UK.


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