It is true that the West has become numb to the refugee crisis. It seems all too forgettable when startling figures and pictures are no longer headline new when there seem to be more important stories to tell. But during RAG week, Refugee Action St Andrews sought to humanise the situation. In an intimate screening and Q&A with the directors of the original play (Charlotte Eagar and William Stirling) and lead actress Reem (who successfully sought asylum in the UK) , students viewed the updated version of Euripides’ ancient Greek play, The Trojan Women, and the accompany documentary, Queens of Syria, of the tour process. The play was originally was part of a fifty women drama project for refugees in Jordan during 2013 and thirteen women obtained visas to tour around the UK in 2016, to which it received five star (The Times) and four star (The Financial Times, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph) reviews and allowed them to share their story, speak to MPs and just promote the real life of refugees- opposed to our sanitised media versions
Although none were actors, the continuity of war and the similarity between the refugees’ situation within the play and in modern times enabled the women’s own experiences to be woven into the narrative and retold in their native language (with subtitles accompanying both the viewing and the original play). The emotion was real, it was almost not a play but an opportunity to share their experience, to write it down and showcase the situation. It was their own story, and the pain and anger towards their unescapable situation was tangible. They retold stories of their weddings, their children, their flight and questioned just what did they do to deserve this and why. They all tell of missing Syria, of what each woman carried with her and the documentary is full of song and joking and wishing they were home. Opposed to the stark facts and experiences presented in the play, raw as they were, seeing the women interact and care about one another, speak candidly and say what they truly felt, was far more emotional for me.
I am fortunate enough to have recently spent five weeks working with refugees from all over the world, including Syria, and the same stories mentioned above echoed within families I spoke to. Why are we still in limbo after four or five years away from home? Why haven’t I been able to finish my degree? Does anyone care and how long do we have to live like this? The women in the documentary talked about thinking that the West didn’t care, when in fact it was a naivety- the audience members did not know, did not understand their situation- yet cried for them each night of the tour. Our naivety and inability to understand from the news sources we are given are unfortunate truths. Many of these women had careers or were getting degrees, and they had to flee due to the war. Sometimes refugees seems like an eternal second class status, yet for many of these people it was not always the way. Most of them grew up with relative wealth, good education and opportunities. Opportunities they cannot use in a refugee camp, without legal status, and in constant limbo.
The Q and A itself was full of questions of how the play was chosen, how the project was set up (both directors studied Classics and Edgar reported on the Bosnian war in the 90’s, where she saw similarities across the refugee stories across The Trojan Women and modern refugee crises), and what we could do to help. Reem answered these questions candidly- do what you can, as you can; whether that is promoting someone’s story, re-humanising the situation or just making friends with refugees in your local area. Many Syrian families, they emphasised, were used to eating together and being part of large family units where everyone got together every week or so. Being a refugee in the UK, with your family separated across Europe, and even to Canada, removes those close family ties and can cause loneliness- especially if one doesn’t speak English. At the end of the day refugees are people, it doesn’t matter where they have come from, or what they have experienced. They are human first and we all share similarities, be it via TV shows, music, make up or sport. For all the talk of integration it is not big schemes that really make the difference, it is people reaching out and refugees being able to seek and speak to people who genuinely want to be their friend first.
I was already an advocate for supporting refugees and for helping them however possible and this has only reinforced it. Remember humanity first, read into media reports for the hidden stories that are not always told and seek out friendships. Queens of Syria and this reinterpretation of The Trojan Women exemplified that humans do not change, regardless of culture, age or technological prowess. War exists, as it always has, and we have to deal with the fallout to human livelihoods in the most positive way possible, by supporting those affected.