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May. 12th 2016

Emerge/ncy: theatre workshops with refugees and asylum seekers

Part of the Emerge/ncy project has been delivering some theatre workshops with different groups of migrants and refugees. By delivering workshops (which focus on communication, group working skills, basic physical theatre and mask skills, and having fun together) the creative team have had the opportunity to meet a really diverse group of people affected by migration, which has helped us get an understanding, on a personal level, into some of the issues we are wrestling with in the show.

Overall, we worked with about 100 people. We delivered workshops in two settings: a group called R and B (‘Refugees and Befriending’) organised by the Red Cross, which runs 4 groups across London for young unaccompanied refugees and asylum-seekers (mainly aged 14-21). The other setting, via an organisation called Migrant Help, was a hostel in South London where people of all ages and nationalities are sent to live temporarily while their asylum claims are processed. 
 
The workshops were quite daunting to plan - we didn’t know any of the participants or really their background, and many of them didn’t have more than basic English. But once we got going, we had huge amounts of fun. After the Red Cross workshops, we all sat down together to eat dinner, which was a lovely opportunity to just hang out and chat. We celebrated one boy’s birthday with a cake and I wondered where his mum was, and if she knew how he was doing. I found it hard to believe at times that some of the young people we were sitting round a table eating dinner with had made such difficult, arduous journeys alone. 
 
One softly-spoken young man told me about his trip from Eritrea, via Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Italy and France. You know the Jungle? he asked me. Have you been there? No, I said, what’s it like? Cold, he answered. And wet. I asked him what he thought of London, whether he liked it. He was hugely positive about our city. “There’s no trouble here” he told me. It really shifts your perspective being told that our bustling, competitive home city is an oasis of peace, but to some people, it really is. 
 
The workshops at the hostel were some of the most joyous workshop experiences I’ve ever had, despite the somewhat institutional setting and difficult conditions the participants are living in. The hostel is quite basic, and people of many different nationalities (many with young children) and living in close proximity and with huge amounts of uncertainty as they wait indefinitely for asylum claims to move forward. Many of them have no idea how long they will stay - and often people are moved at a day’s notice, so it must be very hard to build any relationships or get a meaningful sense of the local area.
We decided to lead with a big music jam, and hauled along an arsenal of instruments and percussion. Mario and Tunji built a brilliant guitar/drum/voice improvisation up, and soon 35 or so people had gathered to join in - to play, make music and enjoy themselves. The youngest was 4, the oldest probably 74. One couple from Kabul brought a three-week old baby. Despite the cultural differences, people joined in with an enthusiasm, energy and playfulness that I've rarely experienced and we all left on a big high. 
 
We've got a huge amount out of delivering the workshops, and hopefully have left a useful experience and positive memories with the people we worked with. The workshops to me were a reminder of what gets completely left out of new coverage of refugee/migrant stories: the incredible and positive human qualities people bring with them. The people we have met and had the privilege to work with have been resourceful, resilient, brave, playful, inventive, joyous, warm, determined, tolerant, collaborative, generous and wise. These are all qualities we desperately need as we collectively face the huge challenges this century is serving us.

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