LONDON: A few weeks ago, as the European border control debate raged on among tabloid-fuelled fear of mass immigration from North Africa, I headed to East London to see volunteer actors perform a documentary play called On a Clear Day You Can See Dover.
“I’m 13 and I’m here in Calais with my two cousins, aged 10 and 11. We’re alone here. And we have travelled alone from Afghanistan to Calais. It’s very bad there [in Afghanistan], there’s no electricity, it’s nothing like here. Our mothers paid smugglers to take us to England, €3,000 each.”
So starts Ahmed’s story, and it’s all the more incredible because it’s true.
Award-winning playwright Sonja Linden recorded Ahmed’s story as one of many others collected in and around the French border port of Calais in September 2009. To show immigration as a European human rights issue, she compiled the testimonies of those involved — migrants, French citizens, policy makers, academics and NGO workers. The result is On a Clear Day, one of several such plays performed by the human rights theater company Linden founded, called Ice and Fire.
When Linden first met Ahmed and his two cousins at a food distribution centre in Calais, they had travelled from Jalalabad in Afghanistan through Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy alone, fleeing from the men who had kidnapped their politician fathers eight years before. A rumor that one of their fathers had been sighted in Birmingham had pushed their mothers to send them alone, at the mercy of abusive smugglers, across Europe to the UK.
On stage, Ahmed’s character, played by an actor, tells of how on a train at the Italian-French border he feigned not to understand a policeman’s request for passports. Moved by their bravery, the policeman – played by another actor – decided to let them continue their journey instead of apprehending them. As he left the train, he turned around, gave them a thumbs up, and said, “Best of luck!”
Like the other stories related in On a Clear Day, Ahmed’s injects humanity into an issue often seen only in terms of file numbers and maximum quotas, and challenges the audience’s prejudices about immigrants.
Migrants can be brave, unaccompanied children, often fleeing conflict. In 2009, of 13,885 unaccompanied children registered as arriving in Europe, half were young Afghan boys. Migrants can also be highly educated: Ahmed wants to be a doctor, while another true-life character in the play is a student from Iran.
Ice and Fire’s documentary plays aim to change hearts and minds, says Linden, by creating engaging documentary theater so that people can identify with people who are normally vilified.
But does it work?
Last November, the company showed one of its documentary plays to staff at the United Kingdom’s Border Agency (UKBA), the British government agency in charge of immigration. Two of the asylum seekers whose stories were scripted in the play attended, and some of the UKBA employees were very moved, according to Ice and Fire staff, because although they process the files of asylum seekers on a daily basis, they said: “We never get to meet them!”
Although slowly, Ice and Fire has managed to convey the individual stories of the voiceless directly to otherwise uninterested members of the general public, and to some of the health, council and government workers in whose hands their futures lie.
Combined with other creative initiatives to raise public awareness about the plight of refugees, it gives a much needed face lift to a tired immigration debate, a numbers game now focusing on migration from North Africa to Europe that too often leaves humanity on the side.
Alice Hackman is a freelance journalist based in London. Her blog on Yemen, where she spent two years as a reporter and Features Editor for the Yemen Times, is aliceauyemen.blogspot.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).