At a small community centre in the heart of the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, Syrian theatre director Bassem watches on proudly as a group of young refugees and locals act out emotional scenes of sexual harassment and discrimination.
An actor and director back in his native Syria, the 37-year-old has long regarded theatre as an extension of human experience, and has channelled his own experiences of loss and displacement into his art.
After losing his father to the conflict in 2012, Bassem was forced to flee shelling and violence near his home in Damascus with his wife and four children. The family sought refuge in Alexandria, where they reunited with other relatives.
Struggling with grief and dislocation, Bassem initially found it hard to reestablish his life in Egypt. But after taking the initiative to organize free acting classes and clown shows for refugee children, he recognized the positive impact his art could have on himself as well as others.
“Art heals. It teaches us peace and security. It is such a huge thing, more important than what you learn at school.” Bassem explained. “When you turn something negative in the life of a child into something positive, it makes a huge difference to their future.”
With support from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which provided costumes, make-up and other supplies as well as promotional materials, Bassem expanded his classes to include the local Egyptian community where he was based, welcoming people with disabilities, orphans and street children.
In 2016, Bassem established “The Nomads”, a 30-member theatre group ranging in age from seven to 24 years that includes refugees from Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Sudan as well as local Egyptians. He also found work as an activity coordinator with one of UNHCR’s local NGO partners in Alexandria, which helps him to support his family.
Egypt is currently host to more than 247,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers from 58 nationalities, with more than half having fled Syria’s eight-year conflict.
The majority of the displaced live in urban areas alongside host communities, where UNHCR works with government authorities to provide access to protection services, health care and education.
Through its community empowerment programme, UNHCR also encourages refugees and asylum-seekers to play an active role in their own personal and economic development. Such initiatives are designed to help them engage with the local communities where they live, in order to achieve a greater degree of self-reliance, exercise their rights and improve their daily lives.
Bassem’s theatre group uses drama to tackle social issues such as gender violence, sexual harassment and racial discrimination. The group offers participants a safe space to express their feelings and connect with other members, with many saying their lives have been enriched by art and a special personal bond with Bassem.
“Ever since I started working with Bassem, my personality has changed,” said 24-year-old Hazem, a local Alexandrian who now works as Bassem’s right-hand man. “He helped me express my emotions. We are not just friends, we are family. We are connected in everything.”
‘’We are not a burden. We are here to give back,’’ said Bassem, explaining how important it is for him and other refugees to play an active role in their host communities.
Proud of what he has achieved so far, Bassem hopes to expand his activities to other cities in Egypt and showcase the power of art in overcoming adversity and bringing people together.
“In the life of every one of us there is an artist – whether we are a refugee, an immigrant, or a citizen,” he said. “All I do is unveil this artist inside them and then let them continue their journey.”