This is a slightly edited version of the presentation I gave at the Symposium on Arts, Academia and Asylum at Arcola Theatre January 2016 organised by Alice Mukaka, for the University of East London, in association with Leeds Studio.
In the end, it was a photograph that did it. I’ve been working with refugees and refugee organisations for three years and in that time a large part of the conversation has been about how to raise awareness, how to engage the empathy of a British public who, with very notable exceptions, seemed indifferent or openly hostile to people seeking sanctuary in our country or at our borders.
Then that photograph happened. The seemingly sleeping body of drowned toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on the shore of Turkey grabbed hold of the public imagination in a way that thousands of statistics never had. The outpouring of outrage, sympathy, support and love was extraordinary; in the next few weeks a quarter of people in the UK donated something, money or possessions, to refugees.
Stories matter. It is the story that we see through a single image. A child who could be our child. Who could be us. This moves us in the way that facts and figures don’t. Although I remain deeply conflicted about the use of that photo and vehemently disagree with anyone using it now, it undeniably had a huge effect at the time.
Stories matter. There are millions of refugee stories. The largest refugee crisis since WWII cannot be contained in a single image. Soon after that, we had the kickback: they can’t be ‘real’ refugees if they are not Syrian; look they are young, strong men, how could they be fleeing persecution. The Syrian crisis is a particularly present issue, driving millions away from their homes (95% of whom are in just 5 countries next to Syria – Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, Jordon). But there are many reasons why men, women and children are driven away from their countries to seek safety elsewhere. It is a universal right to seek asylum. Everyone deserves to have their story fairly heard.
Our play, Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni performed by Lladel Bryant, tells the story of Ishmael, an asylum seeker in Leeds. It tells the complex story of being moved through the asylum system, of being made powerless and anonymous, of being met with hostility, and with love, from the native population, of an already traumatised man being re-traumatised by a system designed to deal with you as a problem not as a person. It also tells the particular story of a gay asylum seeker from Zimbabwe. The story of LGBTQI asylum seekers is that of a minority within a minority. Until recently it was practice to ask asylum seekers to ‘prove’ their sexuality, or to tell them they can go home and ‘live quietly’. The enormously high burden of ‘proof’ means that the UK refuses 99% of all asylum claims based on sexuality on first application.
We started this production in 2014. I was then Associate Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse and had applied, and among fierce competition, got Zodwa Nyoni on a Channel 4 Residence at the theatre. As part of the residency I commissioned her, along with Oran Mor in Glasgow to write a one-act play for A Play, A Pie and A Pint. Zodwa came up with the title and the idea. It was inspired by a friend of hers, an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe who was dispersed to Leeds and living in a shared flat in an Armley tower block. It came from her observation of him looking out over the city but unable to take part in the life he saw there. As she was researching the stories of young, male asylum seekers she came across a blog called Free Movement about the experience of a young bisexual asylum seeker and the kind of questioning he had received. That was the starting point for Ishmael’s story.
The play doesn’t tell you the statistics. It doesn’t tell you all the details of Ishmael’s case or even its outcome. It connects you to him as a human being. It reminds you that everyone going through this experience is a person, an individual with his or her own hopes, dreams, histories and stories. Not as some very unhelpful commentators and politicians would have it: ‘cockroaches’, ‘vermin’, ‘swarms’. To quote my favorite review from Tim Bano in Time Out: ‘Ishmael’s is only one story, but that’s the point: it’s his and his alone. He’s not a swarm anymore. He’s human.’
The course of this production has charted the course of the issue of refugees in the public consciousness: to begin with few outside of those actively involved really knew or cared about the issue. Then suddenly the issue broke into public awareness, a paradigm shift of such magnitude it can only be that the knowledge, the awareness was there all along, waiting for permission to become conscious. Some of the volunteer organisations we knew struggled to keep up with the volume of donations and vehemence of the ‘debate’. Such an almighty change in public opinion that it even had hitherto intransigent government promising to take 20,000 Syrian refugees. A still inadequate reaction to the situation but showing the change happens, mountains do move. Yet as if to prove for every action there is a reaction, immediately following the attacks on Paris we saw a sudden swing the other way in media and in politics. In just hours following, even we started picking up negative, worried or aggressive comments on social media, some of which we could engage with, some of which we couldn’t. Now in 2016, with 32,000 people having arrived in Greece in one month alone, what story, what stories are being told matters more than ever.
Through it all it has felt important to tell this story, of Ishmael and the other characters of the play. Because his story is of one of the most vulnerable, and often overlooked, the LGBT asylum story is often that of the ‘excluded by the excluded’ as the play says. As his individual story, it stands for all the individual stories, not just of all asylum seekers, but all of us. Nine Lives connects us to all of the characters, and all of the characters to each other. We each have our own, inalienable humanity, each worthy of respect and acknowledgment.
I was asked in a post-show discussion while on tour were we not only preaching to the converted. That the lovely theatre audience is likely to agree with us already. Well yes, and no. Over the life of the production so far we have played to great variety of people – those going through or who have gone through these experiences, those with a great deal of knowledge of asylum, those with very little. What the play does is bring Ishmael’s story to life, and those of the people he meets, who may accept or reject him, and why. What we then do is offer simple practical ways people can get involved whether that is reading more information, donating to a charity, joining in a local group. In many places we have been working with refugee artists and arts activities with refugees and asylum seekers. Just at this run at the Arcola we have been very privileged to display the work of Bern O’Donohugh; Platforma and Counterpoints Arts are presenting three gigs of refugee and migrant musicians and poets; and we’ve raised money for UKLGIG through a fundraising Gala. Through touring we can reach a few 1000s of people. Not big numbers but any way we can get these stories out matters. And in drama no one had to die to tell them.
Stories matter. Not just to the ones who didn’t know the story but to the ones to whom the story belongs. In Swansea one man approached our actor Lladel after the performance, ‘Thank you for your story’ he said. Lladel explained it wasn’t actually his story. ‘But it is mine’ he replied ‘Everyone should hear this story.’ Everyone wants to be seen, to be understood, to be a person. People seeking asylum have had everything taken from them, their dignity, safety, their own sense of self. Taking part in arts, singing, playing, drawing, dancing, telling stories gives back that sense of self, that sense of connection to other human beings. Seeing your story reflected on stage can do the same, you have been seen, understood, acknowledged. If the play was to have a message, it would be that hope lies in the human connection between people, whoever they may be.
Your stories matter. Both your own personal story – who you are and what you want to do, what has led you here and what you will take away with you. And the stories that you tell in your work and in your life. All of us tell stories, in your research, through narratives, through arguments, evidence, statistics, through arts or pictures or enabling others to tell their story themselves. By doing the best we can, by doing what we are best at, we can make these stories have an effect on others, and affect the world we live in. And we can have more of an effect by working together – not by trying to be something we are not but using what we do to best advantage. I’m best at directing and producing plays – by doing this play and collaborating with academics, artists and organisations we have raised money, debate, awareness and given a platform for refugees to perform. We may have only shifted the world a little bit, but shift it we have.
Stories have power, the stories we tell transform us. Stories can take flight, change the mind of a government, change the mood of a country. The stories that are told and the people who get to tell them matter because they shape our understanding of the world. Let’s tell all the stories that we can.