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Syrian refugee drama project moves from stage to screen, and back

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Syrian refugee drama project moves from stage to screen, and back

The Trojan Women Project provides refugees a chance to learn new skills and voice experiences of exile; 'The World to Hear,' a film about the acclaimed 'Queens of Syria' theatre tour, is running at the Glasgow Film Festival
23 February 2018
Syrian refugees are seated for one of the Kaleidoscope workshops in Aberdeen.

ABERDEEN, SCOTLAND - Two Syrian women are arguing into a microphone. “I don’t want to see anyone,” Fatima shouts at Reem. “You invited him! You sort it out!” Beside them, Nancy, an elegant Scottish lady of a certain age, says quietly: “Very good! I think that’s it!”

The women grin with relief. Mohammed, the Syrian director, and Sean, the local producer from Aberdeen’s SHMU community radio, give the thumbs up.

This row, although not real, was inspired by real events. Fatima and Reem* are part of a group of Syrian refugees in Aberdeen who spent two weeks making a radio drama based on their lives.

In a local recording studio in a local community centre, the project comes to a climax. As the Syrians -- men in black leather jackets, women in Hijabs and sparkly cardigans -- mutter over their scripts, local Aberdeen girls in Fuchsia tights pick their way past to dancing class.

Welcome to Kaleidoscope, a therapeutic audio-drama and awareness project for Syrian refugees, part-funded by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and AMAL, and hosted by Aberdeen City Council. Kaleidoscope is just one of the therapy and advocacy projects run by the Trojan Women Project, a group that has, since 2013, been managing similar projects in Jordan and Europe. 

Kaleidoscope began with an Arabic production of Euripides’ Trojan Women, with an all-female cast of Syrian refugees, through which the women reworked their stories of exile and loss into the text. That play toured the UK in 2016 with the Young Vic theatre company as ‘Queens of Syria.’

‘The World to Hear,’ a film about the ‘Queens of Syria’ tour – directed by Charlotte Ginsborg and Anatole Sloan – is being shown at the 2018 Glasgow Film Festival Friday.

Since 2013, the Trojan Women Project has run numerous projects, including the first Arabic adaption of the musical ‘Oliver!’ with a cast of Syrian refugee children. In 2014, they created a radio drama set in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp -- based loosely on the long running BBC radio soap opera ‘the Archers’ -- which was broadcast on BBC Arabic and BBC Radio 4.

“We want people in Britain to understand why we are here.”

Trojan Women is also currently running a music project, ‘If Music be the Food of Love,’ in Jordan with Syrian and local children, backed by the World Food Programme.

Kaleidoscope is the group’s on-going drama project, culminating in a series of radio pieces. It has run workshops in Glasgow and Heidelberg as well as Aberdeen. The Aberdeen episodes will be broadcast in Arabic, by SHMU, a local community radio station, as well as Arabic radio stations.  After this, the refugees will work on the English language version of the scripts to record later this year. This will be broadcast on SHMU; BBC Radio Scotland is making a documentary about the project.

“It’s very important to have the script in English,” says Khaled, one of the eight refugee men in this stage of the project.  “We want people in Britain to understand why we are here.” He and his brother fled to Lebanon from Homs after seeing their parents killed by a barrel bomb. They were resettled to the UK.

This part of the project started a year ago. Thirty Syrians and five Aberdonians came together in a Methodist Church to be taught how to write episodic radio drama. The initial workshops were led by Liz Rigbey, former editor of ‘the Archers.’ Mohammed Abou Laban and Liwaa Yazjii, an experienced Syrian husband and wife team, are part of the writing and directing team. Kaleidoscope plans similar workshops in Glasgow and then abroad.

A group of Syrian women learning their lines at the Kaleidoscope workshop, Aberdeen.

The Syrians, all of whom had arrived in Scotland as part of the UK’s resettlement scheme, divided into four groups; three of men, one for the women, each under a writer-trainer. For three days, they shared their stories with the group, then improvised scripts from their experiences. Each group then acted out their stories for the class. The stories were about family members stuck in Syria; children trying to reunite with parents; the isolation of life in Scotland, solved by one group of young men buying bicycles; and refugees trying to send medicine to siblings with rare genetic medical conditions in Lebanon.

The project aims to help Syrians work their way through the trauma and isolation of exile, and spread understanding and awareness of the refugee crisis, through drama. Of 30 Syrians involved, 10 volunteered for a fortnight’s drama and recording workshop. Led by Mohammed, they created two, 20-minute pilot episodes, based on the strongest storylines.

Fatima’s story was a main plotline: she and her young husband tried to get his brother out of Syria. Just 18, the brother was to be drafted into the army, but could not legally be brought to the UK. They tried to raise funds to have the brother smuggled out, but he was killed before leaving. Fatima’s marriage collapsed under the strain. Her husband, grief-stricken, turned to drink but remains nearby. She was left alone in Aberdeen, with two small children. Fatima was then taken up by the single mums in her apartment block. “I don’t understand anything they say,” she says. “I keep finding I’ve agreed to things without meaning to -- like going swimming!”

“Now we have a whole new family”

Another storyline was inspired by a trip the Council was planning for the refugees to the Ballater Highland Games, much to the Syrians’ excitement. “We want to thank the Queen for having us in the UK,” says one.  They were also keen to enter the competitions. “I can lift 50 kg with my teeth!” Khaled adds.

At the end of each workshop, a questionnaire is distributed. “I only came for the food and because I had nothing else to do,” says one. “But I found sharing my story very helpful and have made lots of new friends.”  

Creating a new community is one of the results of the project. Syrians typically lean on large, extended-family networks. “Now we have a whole new family,” another refugee adds after the Aberdeen workshop.

The Syrians won several of the races at the Highland Games, although, sadly, the Queen wasn’t there to be thanked.  

*Names changed to protect individuals