Ava Hunt explains the story behind a new play coming to Derby for Refugee Week
As we will all remember, the summer of 2016 was a series of shocking events, when; Joe Cox, Labour MP, was murdered, when Brexit was decided, Cameron resigned, Theresa May was elected against a backdrop of images of 10,000 refugees in The Jungle, in Calais.
I was asked by Amnesty International, Wirksworth Branch, to create a piece of theatre that could be staged at the Wirksworth Arts Festival in September 2016 that would tell an alternative narrative to the one that was predominately told by the mainstream media.
And so a journey began for me, uncovering acts of generosity. Ordinary people taking a stand against a rise in nationalistic politics fuelled by Mr Farage and UKIP. I produced a rehearsed reading of A Story To Be Told featuring Brendan Woodhouse, a Derbyshire firefighter, who swam out into the Mediterranean to rescue and resuscitate a drowning baby. It was a powerful evening. People wanted to do something, to make a difference, action groups were set up to steer volunteers to help refugees on the streets in Paris, in Calais, collecting clothes, blankets etc., as well as campaigns such as Stand As One were started.
I had already secured some funding from the British Council – International Artist Development Fund to start to research a new piece of theatre developing the ideas of A Story To Be Told. To investigate how we could break down the divisions that seemed to be opening up so passionately on both sides.
Part of the plan was to volunteer with one of the leading charities in The Jungle – Care for Calais. After this I had planned to link up with a range of artists and theatre companies in Sydney and Melbourne who were working with young refugees and creating theatre that challenged audiences. Why Australia? Well, back in 2016, it was being heralded by many of the Brexit politicians, as a country who were ‘getting it right with immigration’ – a points based system – a system which, it was suggested, the UK should adopt.
Of course, the truth is that Australia’s treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers is equally questionable – the floating concentration camps of Christmas Island, Manos and Nauru hide tragic stories. These stories are all justified as part of policies that are supported by strong anti-immigration parties and politicians such as Pauline Hanson, all driven by tapping into the fears of ‘taken over’ etc.
I was working with composer and writer Craig Christie, in Melbourne. Each day during December 2016 we would reflect on our time in The Jungle together. We had lots of ideas but no central story on which inspired us. Then, one morning, on ABC Breakfast News, a young man – a Syrian refugee, Saad Alkassab sat on the sofa and told his story. He had escaped from Homs, and come to live in Melbourne not speaking a word of English and within two years had achieved the highest exam results in the whole of Victoria.
Craig and I made contact with Saad (pictured with me, above) and so Journeys of Destiny was born.
Saad Al-Kassab was 14 when he was forced to leave his home city of Homs, Syria in 2013 after war broke out. Up until then he had been like any other teenage boy who dreamed of growing up with his friends or playing for Manchester United. All of that changed when his older brother, Omar, 17, was shot in the back during a peaceful protest, and later arrested and tortured for helping to coordinate food-aid in a humanitarian effort against the Asaad regime with his scout movement. Upon Omar’s escape the family decided to flee and embarked on a journey into the unknown…
The family escaped across the border to Lebanon, before flying to Egypt and eventually taking sanctuary in Australia in 2014. Upon arriving in the country Saad and his family spoke no English and in the space of just 3 years Saad went on to achieve the best marks at one of Australia’s biggest secondary schools, and achieve grades within the top 4% of exam results across Melbourne. He has since gone on to study to become a doctor, and alongside his brother Omar, was granted the global Messengers of Peace Hero award in Australia by the international Scouts movement in 2017 for their contribution to creating positive change through raising awareness of the situation in Syria and preventing radicalisation and extremism.
In Journeys of Destiny Ava Hunt Theatre is taking Saad’s inspirational story of fleeing war-torn Syria with his family for a better life and interweaves it with the young people making the transition from primary to secondary school. Working with young people from Derbyshire Schools, Derby Theatre Youth groups and young refugees from Derbyshire County Council’s Virtual School, the professional company will explore themes of change and resilience. Using songs, verbatim material from Saad’s recollections and the young people’s stories of going from the known to the unknown, whether it be changing schools, changing homes or changing countries, Journeys of Destiny explores what we need to take with us to keep us resilient, so we can navigate a world of change and achievement.
Following the performance, the Journeys of Destiny team will join forces with representatives from Derby’s Refugee Advice Centre to lead a post-show discussion around the themes of the show and the themes of Refugee Week.
What is exciting and different about this project is that it opens up the theatre work that happens in schools to a public audience which is rarely done, but also to parents, the whole school and for audiences who wouldn’t normally go to see a piece of refugee theatre. The emotional resilience that Saad and his family required in order navigate the challenges that they experienced was immense and the story hasn’t ended of course. Saad is trying to get into Medical School, he often feels overwhelmed by everything, like any young adult at University. His family still can’t return to Syria, they still don’t have Australian passports and the war is still not over.
Journeys of Destiny is an exciting story, with original songs, told by a talented team of professional actors and young people about to make a journey that they will feel empowered to navigate.
JOURNEYS OF DESTINY by Craig Christie
The true story of a young Syrian refugee: a journey of destiny for all
Thursday 20th June: 6.30 Derby Theatre Studio: Box Office: 01332 59 39 39
Friday 21st June: 7pm Attenborough Arts Centre: Box Office: 0116 252 2455