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Syrian refugee women empower themselves through Greek play


Syrian refugee women empower themselves through Greek play

A theatre workshop in Beirut opened a safe space for 35 Syrian women to reflect on their experiences and build their self-confidence.
21 November 2018
Syrian refugee women participating in a theatre workshop to perform Antigone in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2014.

Before the workshop, the 35 Syrian refugee women who decided to join the theatre training in Beirut had never heard of Antigone. Three months later, when they took the stage to perform the classic Greek play, the script had led them through a whole personal transformation.

“It was all about laughter and trust,” says Hal Scardino, the actor who organized the Beirut workshop through his foundation Open Art. “We wanted them to enjoy the moment. It was important for them to have something to look forward to when they came in.”

In the fall of 2014, the Syrian women would meet Monday through Saturday, from 10 am to 2 pm, to rehearse Antigone, perform trust-building and self-expression exercises and reflect on how the script related to their own experiences. During that time, a child care area was made available by the organizers to ensure they could focus on themselves.

“They really empowered themselves.”

One performance exercise at a time, the women built a community where they felt safe and that helped them process their own experiences and trauma caused by the war in Syria.

The workshop was also an exciting endeavor that broke their routine and built their self-confidence. Most of the women had never left the refugee camps or settlements where they were living before. Some were not allowed to go out on the street without covering their face.

“We really did not do much,” Scardino insists. “We gave them a script, we gave them a space to explore the themes and let them talk it out. They really empowered themselves.”

Mona, one of the protagonists of the documentary film We Are Not Princesses, during the theatre workshop in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2014.

Scardino also co-produced the documentary We Are Not Princesses, which captures the journey of Mona, Wala’a, Fadwa, Hiba and other women from Syria to the Lebanese stage through their experiences at the theatre workshop. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, recently co-sponsored a screening of the film in New York City.

“What is so powerful about this film it that it tells the individual stories,” said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of UNHCR’s Global Desk in New York. “We are so bombarded with large numbers – the fact that there are 68.5 million who are forced to flee, it’s something that you almost can’t grapple with. But each single refugee has his or her own story.”

“Our losses have been so big that we have to fight for what is left.”

In the film, the Syrian women discuss Antigone’s characters over lunch or coffee and discuss who they identify with most. Some feel close to the protagonist, Antigone, and her drive to properly bury her dead brother. Others see themselves as matriarchs who are in charge of enforcing rules, like king Creon.

For all of them, the workshop opened up a space to speak up against abuse and discrimination, about their desire to walk free on the street, have a job or compose rap music. “Our losses have been so big that we have to fight for what is left,” one of the women said in the film.

Echoes of the women’s own experiences in Syria, illustrated by animations in the film, establish strikingly timely parallelisms with the Greek play, written more than 2,000 years ago.  

Refugees are usually eager to share their own stories, Ghedini-Williams said. Being able to tell your own story in your own words, rather than have other people tell it for you, has a restorative power.

“It is incredibly powerful to see women doing that for themselves – not as mothers, as wives, as daughters, but as their own sovereign selves,” she added.

We Are Not Princesses is now touring through festivals across the world. The producers hope to screen the documentary in refugee camps and urban communities where refugees live.