From coming to the UK in the back of a lorry to performing at The Pleasance
By Syed Najibi, Emirjon Hoxhaj, Awet Mohamed Ali and Kate Duffy of Phosphoros Theatre Company
‘Can you bring the play to Brighton, Bradford, Sheffield, NEW YORK!’ Here’s five thousand dollars to make Dear Home Office the Movie!’
That is how our new play ‘Dear Home Office: Still Pending’ begins, with all the true things that have happened to us in the year since we have been a theatre company. It is a very big journey for us because we came to the UK on our own as children, with not much English and none of us had even been to the theatre before. But six of us lived in a Supported House in Harrow that Kate was manager of, and we told her we wanted to tell our stories, so that’s how Phosphoros Theatre began. We are ten refugee boys from Afghanistan, Albania, Eritrea and Somalia, plus Kate and her brother Jordy. We are all aged 18 – 25 and none of us are professional actors. But last year we made a play that got shortlisted for the Amnesty Freedom of Expression Award. ‘Dear Home Office: Still Pending’ is about our lives as young refugees and asylum seekers in London, and is on at The Pleasance on October 21st and 22nd.
When we made the first play we didn’t know that so many people would be interested in us. But then audiences wanted us to do Q&As after the performances so they could find out more. People always ask why we don’t have girls in our show, and people always ask Emirjon why we have refugees from Albania. It was hard to answer some of the questions at first as it’s normally solicitors asking us stuff, but we get that people are curious. There’s loads about refugees in the media but not many like us actually speaking out.
We got invited to talk at a medical conference about child refugees with Lord Dubs. We explained what the Jungle was like, and how it feels to be worrying about your families back home. Everyone else there was professional so it was strange to have them learning from us. But there is a lot that happens on our journeys that people don’t talk about, so it’s important that the experts know.
It’s not just UK people who contact us. We have given interviews to people from Italy and Canada, and the money for the film came from a Producer in New York. We filmed ‘Dear Home Office: The Movie’ with a Director and a crew of twenty-five film students. It was really hard work as we did it in one weekend, and they treated us like proper film actors, with food and costumes and radio mics. It was weird acting scenes of being in prison in Libya and squashed in lorries and boats, when only a year before some of us had been there for real.
The Southbank asked us to take part in their Children’s Festival, so Awet read stories from his country, Eritrea. The little children in the audience listened really hard and he left feeling very hopeful that children hearing about different cultures across the world will eventually make it easier for us all to live together.
Then Mohamed was asked to write an article for VICE by a journalist who’d seen the play. He wrote about coming to the UK from Somalia, not knowing anything and having to trust his support worker to help him. He mentioned scenes from the show too, like when we act out his first shopping trip. In real life he was confused and nervous but onstage the audience laughs with him and he feels powerful. The article was translated into nineteen languages and shared hundreds of times online. UNHCR are still tweeting about it.
But while we are confident on stage, our lives away from the theatre company can be really hard. One of our group had to leave college because he didn’t get on with his teachers, and three of us have had to leave our accommodation this year. Another was ready to go to University, to do I.T, but he doesn’t have refugee status so he can’t. That’s in the new play, how you can be clever and work really hard but if you don’t have papers you are stuck.
Audiences often ask us if we’re ‘safe’ now after they’ve seen the play. We always say yes as we don’t want to make them sad. But the truth is that some of us are still waiting for Court decisions.
A couple of our cast have to report at the Home Office every few weeks. It’s very stressful because it could take five minutes for us to sign our names or they could detain us. When we go there it’s scary because they search us like we’re criminals inside a prison, but we didn’t do anything wrong. We don’t think we deserve to go there because we do loads of positive things for this country and we want to live our lives like English people.
One of us showed a video of him acting in the play to the Judge in Court but she still refused him. He has a really good solicitor and barrister so we are keeping fighting. But for him it means more months of waiting. That’s why our new play is called ‘Still Pending’ as no status means we can’t make any proper plans for the futures, we just have to hope and be patient and keep hoping the Home Office will believe what we say.
We hope the play makes audiences understand refugees more. That we are humans just like them. We miss our homes and our families. We don’t want to be a problem, we just want a chance.
See Dear Home Office: Still Pending: Pleasance, London: 21&22 October Bunker, London: 3-4 December
Pleasance Theatre Tickets: Via Website
Bunker Theatre Tickets: Via Website