Around a year ago, I attended a community event at the Young Vic, and we were promoting our play Borderline. Sophie Besse, the director of Borderline, introduced me to a gentleman while discussing the play.
Sophie: This is Baraa, a refugee actor performing in Borderline.
Gentleman: (Looking surprised, eyes sparkling) You are refugee?!
Me:(Surprised by him being surprised) Yes... but I am not the only one.
Gentleman: Yes, but you are the first refugee I’ve ever met.
Me: (Puzzled, wondering if he is joking)
Gentleman: Where are you from?
Me: I am from Syria.
Gentleman: Oh… that must be so traumatising.
End of the scene.
Opportunities could be under a small stone which we might not pay attention to. May 2016, two months after my arrival to the UK from Calais, I was attending a workshop at the National Theatre studios by Good Chance theatre. There I met a Syrian actor, Ammar Haj Ahmad - one of my closest friends now - and he told me that a French director was looking for refugees to take part in a theatre project. I was interested and curious. I met Sophie Besse; she had the idea of devised play with a mixed cast of European and refugees performers. This project could help in integration and breaking walls. I decided to get involved with other friends who I introduced to Sophie. Mohamed Sarrar, a Sudanese singer who I met in Calais, and Abdullah Al Ouda, a Syrian refugee who was my flatmate at the shared accommodation during my asylum process, joined the project.
During the process, I met people from different backgrounds and experiences. We created a very strong bond as performers, European or not, with refugees status or not. Together we created Borderline, a satire, telling the story of refugees and volunteers in Calais Jungle. This production gave all performers a voice, whoever there are, as it was devised by the whole group. As a performer, and recently assistant producer, of this play, I learned that art needs commitment, passion, belief in what you are presenting and to be willing to open a dialogue about it.
In November 2016, Borderline premiered at the Cockpit theatre in London and then was performed more than 30 times and sold out in the UK, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and India. I am enjoying the connection with the audience when I am performing.
After each show, we organise a Q&A which would break any fourth wall that else might still exist! These sessions are different each time, like performances can be, because each audience is a new group of people with their own background and own taste. Last year, we were performing at Southbank Centre, and one of the questions addressed to me was: “is there comedy in Syria?” .This question upset me. I felt as if I was from a different species, as if comedy and laughing, belong to some nations and not others. But it’s not, laughing is universal. My answer with a smile was: “Yes, we know how to laugh and we have comedies just as much as you have here. Also I think we have a good sense of humour.”
https://www.facebook.com/borderlineplayTogether with my encounter with the man that I described at the beginning, this was another example that we need to raise awareness about who we are, where we come from. There is a clear focus on our journey as refugees, in particular from the day we leave our country. I told my story to many reporters, but most of the time I felt they are interested in two years of my life. Of course these two years changed me a lot, but I am 34-years-old and I am more than these two years of my life. However two Dutch film makers who I met in Calais, were interested in inspiring and authentic stories. They came to interview me in London, where I shared all the aspects of my story, and how I feel about having a refugee status.
Now I know that the best platform for me to deliver my message is theatre, alongside with public speaking. And yet I never imagined myself being on stage one day sharing my story. Performing arts can play a huge role in telling people stories, with accuracy and style. I believe any project about refugees should reflect the refugees’ voices by asking them what they want to talk about, rather than assuming to know what they want to say.
In Borderline, the play ends with the demolition of the Calais camp. But the show must go on! We have devised a second show, Borderline 2, about the life of refugees when they arrive to the UK. It will be premiered at Sheffield, as part of Migration Matters Festival during Refugee Week 2018. I was honoured and happy to be chosen by Counterpoints Arts as an Ambassador of the Refugee Week. This week is the 20th anniversary of the Refugee Week, and it will be a great responsibility for me to raise awareness about refugees and contribute to the message delivered during that week and beyond.
Baraa Halabieh is a Syrian actor, interpreter and refugee rights campaigner with refugee status in the UK, and actor with Borderline – a comedy about his experiences in the Calais camp – that is touring the country during Refugee Week