How UK refugees are using theatre to fight xenophobia

A group of refugees in London is using theatre to break stereotypes.
Credit: Phosphoros theatre/ Charlie Ensor

As he speaks, Emirjon’s eyes are brimmed with hope, typical of those with burning passions and dreams to chase. Sat in the dim light surrounding a stage in an East London venue, Emirjon, along with his colleagues, is taking a break from a play rehearsal.

“Trust me, I will become a big Hollywood actor,” he tells Words in the Bucket. Then, he smiles.

Emirjon fled Albania because of persecution fears due to intergenerational violence in his hometown. Alone, exhausted and frightened, he reached the UK as an unaccompanied minor after a weeks-long journey in 2015.

The young man, now in his twenties, is a member of the London-based refugee theatre group Phosphoros Theatre. The company started in 2015, when refugee case worker Kate Duffy assembled a team of creative workers and refugees who felt they had strong stories to tell, but not a platform to voice them. Emirjon stars in Phosphoros ’s latest play, Pizza Shop Heroes, which aims to tackle misconceptions about refugees, offering a fresh perspective on what they can offer to society.

Refugee crisis and harsh rhetoric

The play draws on the experiences of Emirjon and his three colleagues, who fled Eritrea and Afghanistan and reached Britain as unaccompanied children between 2013 and 2015. More than 2,200 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the UK in 2017, according to UK-based organisation Refugee Council. Countries that produced most child asylum seekers include Albania, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and conflict-torn nations such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Nearly half of the asylum requests (45%) were denied.

Conflicts, calamities and underdevelopment have sparked what has been dubbed as

the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Every day, thousands of people leave their country of origin hoping to reach Europe and start a new life free from violence, persecution and cycles of poverty that trap and enslave millions. Children who leave with their families often become separated during the journey.

Humanitarian organisations are striving to help refugees reach their destinations safely and settle in the new country. Some governments have adopted open policies, welcoming refugees and offering resettlement programmes.

However, several nations – including the UK – are witnessing a rise in anti-refugee sentiments, with a harsh rhetoric picturing refugees and migrants as criminals, people who steal jobs, who threaten European values and wholeheartedly embrace terrorism. Research by Cardiff University analysed how the media in five European countries – the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and Sweden – covered the refugee crisis. Researchers deemed the UK coverage as  “the most negative and most polarised”, given its strong focus on potential threats and its indulgence in the “unwanted invader” narrative.

“They don’t see the whole picture”

Pizza Shop Heroes is trying to challenge all this. “[For] every misunderstanding and misjudgement, we want to tell the story behind every refugee, the way we came here, the problems and struggles we had in our country,” says Emirjon.

The four protagonists, who work in a fictitious pizza shop, spend their shift discussing Europe colonial past, identity crises, the volatile reality back home and their perilous journeys to reach Britain. From dangerous escapes through mountains patrolled by soldiers, plastic dinghies in the Mediterranean sea, gunshots raining down “like an earthquake”, to torture and journeys under the scorching desert heat, their stories are dotted with harrowing details. Two of them were detained in Greece and Libya respectively. One had to cross Europe inside a freezing lorry. Another one encountered people “with no souls” and had to flee human traffickers.

UK’s bureaucratic nightmare for refugees

The play also takes a look – with abundant irony – at the lengthy and strenuous bureaucratic procedures that asylum seekers face in the UK. Earlier this year, it was reported that asylum seekers have waited as long as 20 years for their status to be recognised. The Home Office typically decides on “straightforward” cases within six months since the application is submitted. A spokesperson for the Office told the Guardian that “we aim to decide within 12 months” on cases that raise complex issues.

“When we were interviewed by the home office, the solicitors and other people, we were asked specific questions and they wanted only the best answers,” says Syed, one of the Pizza Shop Heroes actors. After fleeing violence in Afghanistan, he is now working hard to become a professional actor as well as an engineer.

“They don’t see the whole picture, sometimes those questions can be about traumatic experiences you don’t feel comfortable answering, or talking about,” he continues.

Shifting rhetoric

Phosphoros describes the protagonists of the play as four ordinary young men who take the audience on a journey “across time and continents to show how extraordinary they are.”

“Refugees and asylums seekers are normally shown in the media as victims, but here we show that we are not victims you should feel sorry for,” says Syed.  “We are refugees because of the situation back home, but we have a lot to offer to this country.”

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Ludovica Iaccino is a London-based press officer for children's charity World Vision. Previously, she worked as a foreign news reporter for the International Business Times and Newsweek, focussing on Sub-Saharan Africa. She has reported extensively on Nigeria and her work features interviews with local activists, politicians, survivors of terror attacks and analyses on terrorism and development. She is the author of “The Silence of Nyamata”, a historical novel about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
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