For Syrian refugees, seeing light at the end of the tunnel is a whole lot to ask. The Syrian civil war is reaching its five-year anniversary, and that’s not quite a call to celebration.
What can humans cling to in such desolation? The things that make us human. We have the ability to feel and express and create. We’ve all heard the expression, “Make Love, Not War.” Its sister quote: “Make Art, Not War.”
Myself an artist, I know how much better and healthier life is with the opportunity for art. Art is is a medium to express yourself, and it becomes an outlet through which to channel anxieties, fears and hatred when you need it to be. Art has been vitalizing Syrian refugee stories more and more. American filmmaker, Chris Milk, recently captured life at the Zaatari refugee camp through film. Refugees themselves have been making visual art, drawing sketches under the direction of Canadian artist, Jean Bradbury, to depict their struggles, also at the Zaatari camp.
And refugees again chose to create art in Lebanon – this time, performance art. Second only to Turkey, Lebanon has the largest number of Syrian refugees sheltered within its borders. Dina Mousawi, a British-Iraqi actress, spearheaded a six-week acting project with a little over a dozen refugee women at a modest studio-turned-theater in the Zuqaq el-Balat neighborhood of west Beirut. Their rehearsals culminated in a play, Terrestrial Journeys, that was performed December 3-4, 2015.
Mousawi emigrated out of Baghdad to the UK as a little girl, during the Iran-Iraq War, so she was not only an excellent stage director but also an empathetic friend to these women. Scene after scene unfolded in their show – a quilt of personal narratives and collective woes sewn together.
Arduous journeys over land and sea. Separation from family. Pent-up frustration over bleak living conditions in the camps. No formal education for the children. The impossible task of finding work. Fear of inquisition by the authorities for faulty paperwork. Fear of more violence. Dreaming of making it to Europe. Remembering home. Letting go of home.
There was no script at the onset of the project. Mousawi instead opted to create the show alongside the women, using their input as inspiration and ideas as material. It was an empowering improvisational process. During one rehearsal, she handed them wooden sticks without any instruction. Soon enough, the women had built a dinghy with them, were sitting inside it, and were rowing through uncharted waters to safety.
This imaginative approach is what ultimately made the show extraordinary. When I volunteered with orphans in Jordan, I liked to employ this method as a dance teacher. The kids’ show was called “Hayatuna” – “our lives” – and that was exactly what we wanted it to be for them: an expression and extension of themselves.
Finally, it was lights, camera, action time. In the final installment on her blog about Terrestrial Journeys, Mousawi reported, “I was most pleased to see that at least 50% of our audience [was] from the refugee camps, men, women and children mixing with Beirut’s middle class – it was exactly as I had wanted.”
These women were courageous not only to have fled Syria but also to have performed in Terrestrial Journeys. They left their hearts on the stage, and I wish I could have seen the show.
The project sought to be creative therapy for the performers and a way for the audience to be moved and made more aware of the refugee situation. It accomplished both – and also produced some bonus outcomes.
A bonding experience unlike any other, the women said there was as much laughter throughout the six weeks than there was crying, if not more. They were sad to see the time come to an end. But then again, maybe it’s not over, after all…in her blog, Mousawi mentioned the prospect of establishing a permanent company with these ladies someday. They certainly deserve it.