Ten years ago, I flew by the seat of my pants into a secondary school I’d never worked in before, my friend Amy, an actor, at my side. Our task – to prepare and perform a play in a week with a group of nine 11 and 12-year-olds. The subject – retelling three true stories of refugees who had lived in or passed through Bradford, in their own words. The script – freshly written, untried, untested. The aim – to educate the children on what it means to be a refugee so they could act as peer educators to their classmates.
We had four mornings – approximately 12 hours – to educate them on a topic they knew next to nothing about, run myth-busting sessions, sensitively share stories, workshop and block 11 pages of script into a performance that would hold the attention of other year sevens.
We had no idea if the project would work.
On the first day, when we asked what they already knew about refugees, one boy shared the things his father told him from reading the tabloid newspapers. “They come over here to take our jobs, they get loads of money and big houses, they pretend to be in danger but they’re not really, they could just live somewhere else, they want to come here because we’re too soft.”
We gave him the main role in the play. He spoke the words that had been gifted to us by Michael, a Zimbabwean lecturer who came to the UK to take care of his sick daughter and found himself unable to return home. It took the UK asylum system 6 years to verify his claim and grant refugee status. He lost his career, his income, his family, his home.
The boy who was playing him came in one morning and told us he’d been in the park with his dad the night before. They’d seen a family they assumed to be refugees. His dad had started talking about them; and the boy turned to him and shared all that he had learned, the facts and the figures, the truth about the UK asylum system, correcting the myths propagated by the press.
And at that moment, we knew we were on to a good thing. That the project had worked. And that its purpose – building empathy and respect for those who have to flee their home countries in fear of their lives – was vital.
Since that first week, a decade ago, we have run the project more than 40 times. More than 400 amateur actors have performed our stories to over 2,300 people.
I have taken part in many thoughtful and sensitive conversations with children and young people, as they seek to meaningfully grapple with issues of power and war and displacement.
I have felt the dawning of deepening understanding in the silent, freeze-frame acting of torture and funeral scenes.
I have witnessed the discovery of light in the shadows, in the joy of a wedding scene, the warmth of welcome, the strength and kindness and determination of the human spirit.
I have seen a group of children support their classmate, a recently arrived refugee still getting to grips with English, to take part in the play alongside them.
I have seen young people determined not to take an interest at the start of the week thrive on the buzz of a powerful performance, declaring it the “best week of our lives!”
And I have seen their fire burning against injustice, their commitment and determination to tell the stories they have been entrusted with, truthfully and with respect.
Since that first pilot project ten years ago, we worked with Bradford’s City of Sanctuary group to set up the Schools of Sanctuary project in the city, establishing an annual art exhibition for Refugee Week, where artwork from refugees, schools, and professional artists is displayed alongside one another. The stories included in the script have been told in song, through artwork, and in animation.
And when I think back to those first tentative, uncertain steps, I am so glad that we took them. I love this project – it is needed now more than ever. The power of stories, of shared experience, is such a vital tool for changing hearts and minds and building a kinder, more empathic world.
More than anything, I am thankful to those who entrusted us with their stories. To Michael, Jhora, Richard, Judy and William. What a privilege it always is to tell them – and to see them changing lives.
*The man whose story goes under the name of Michael in our script sadly passed away earlier this year. He was the first to entrust us with his story, seeing the potential in the project and offering up his own words and experiences. He came to watch one of our early performances, hear the song inspired by his story, and speak to students afterwards; he was visibly moved by the experience. He was a larger-than-life character and a key contributor in bringing Refugee Voices to life. We won’t forget him.
Refugee Voices is a ground-breaking drama project created by Storyteller Julie Wilkinson and run in partnership with the Zephaniah Trust – find out more about it here.
You can watch the online performance of Refugee Voices, filmed for Refugee Week 2020, here.