Refugees take centre stage
Ismael was just 17 when he arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied child to seek asylum . As one of six actors in the play—alongside others from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Morocco and Sudan, all of whom were forced to escape their countries and have sought asylum in the UK—Ismael and his fellow refugees are telling their own stories their own way.
“We are always talked about as either a criminal or a victim,” says Syed, from Afghanistan, who performs alongside Ismael.. “As a community we have things we can offer, we are just like everybody else.” . Theatre, he says, is a powerful platform.
Writer and director Dawn founded Phosphoros in 2015 in London with her daughter Kate to put their years of experience in drama and community work to use helping asylum-seekers and refugees to tell their own stories, and take control of their own narratives. The theatre company’s four productions have toured venues across the UK, with its latest, All the beds I have slept in, recently completing a sell-out run at the Bristol Old Vic theatre.
The play, written by Dawn in collaboration with members of the company, movingly brings to life the precarity of seeking shelter while knowing that it can be taken away without warning but it also shows how the kindness of strangers can be transformative, and never forgotten. The play features choreography and scripted acting, as well as moments when the actors speak as themselves directly to the audience.
The young cast acts with an energy and conviction that belies the fact that none are trained actors. “We’ve always had high expectations of what the actors can achieve” says producer and co-artistic director Juliet.
The performers’ dedication is clear as the cast rehearses: appearing as both a cast of professionals preparing to deliver a powerful show, and as a close-knit community of asylum-seekers and refugees sharing their life experiences in their own words, movements and emotions. “They’re aware that they are role models and the importance of that,” says Dawn. “The confidence that brings transfers to all other aspects of their lives.”
Syed, who joined Phosphoros soon after it started and has since become a trustee, exemplifies the way finding the space to tell his own story on stage, strengthens his confidence elsewhere. While continuing to act, Syed also leads Phosphoros’ new Sharma Project which provides theatre workshops and a place to meet for young Afghans who are seeking asylum, as he once did, He has also completed a degree in engineering, and mentors younger members of the company, such as Ismael.
Syed is proud of the changes he has seen in Ismael since they first met when he was a shy newcomer. “Look at where you are now,” he tells Ismael “We share a stage and we do a show together!”
Ismael says his confidence has grown as part of Phosphoros, which has welcomed him and nurtured his talents. Like Syed before him, Ismael is now studying and has overcome the nervousness he once felt whenever he had to speak publicly.
As All the beds I have slept in closes its run and preparations for the next new production begin, Ismael is settling into life in the UK with the help of his new community of performers. . “I have found a family,” he says.