Queens of Syria press conference: Charlotte Eagar, Reem and Zoe Lafferty discuss the process and the message behind the play
The Syrian refugee crisis has seen one third of the country’s population displaced. After being forced to leave in tragic circumstances, many Syrians took refuge in Jordan where they found safety but face hardships of a different nature. Since it is illegal for them to work and impossible to properly integrate in the new community, many live in a limbo that sees them waiting for elusive answers and solutions. Charlotte Eagar of Refuge Productions and a group of other producers saw the parallels between these people’s state of uncertainty and the waiting game of the classic tale The Trojan Women. Queens of Syria, an ambitious theatrical project, is based on Euripides’ story and was born out of the determination to help Syrian women deal with their traumatic experiences and also dispel the prejudiced views that many people have of refugees.
Charlotte Eagar was working on a drama-therapy project in Africa three years ago when the idea for Queens of Syria was first conceived. At the play’s press conference at the Young Vic, where the UK tour of the play kicks off, she spoke of how it all began: “I saw the extraordinary power that drama has when people can put their own stories into a script and actually play themselves. It helps them process things and they then put on a very strong performance artistically. We thought of doing something similar for Syrian refugees, and we all remembered The Trojan Women, a story about refugees following the fall of Troy, where the men are dead and the women are waiting in a refugee camp to hear their fate.”
Eagar then described the first practical steps that were taken: “We went out to Jordan two-and-a-half years ago and went around the food queues at the UNHCR and the refugee centres and we asked people if they wanted to come and be in this play. We had no idea if anyone would turn up on the first day of the workshops, but in fact 12 people came, and the next day we had 36, the next day 50, and we had to close it at 50 because we didn’t have any more money. We had to turn many people away. The women worked together for six weeks and then we put on this play in Jordan. I thought it would be like a superior school play, but it was absolutely spine-chilling.”
UNHCR was represented at the conference by Andrej Mahecic, who added that: “It was Euripides that said ‘There is no greater sorrow than the loss of one’s land’. These are real life Cassandras and Hecubas. Hearing their compelling stories through the play, which is touring the UK for the next three weeks, is the way of presenting to the audience the fact that refugees are people like you and me, with the same dreams and ambitions. This is their chance to challenge the perceptions of how they’re sometimes portrayed.”
One of the actresses, Reem, fled to Jordan with her family when their home was destroyed and they couldn’t find a safe place to stay. She spoke of the deep impact that this work has had on her: “This project really changed me and how I look at myself. [Whilst working on the play] I met people with similar stories to mine, or even worse, and we became like a big family. None of us are actresses, or ever dreamed we would act on a stage. In Syria I was studying at university, I have just three exams left to graduate. Normally people think that refugees are just people living in camps and tents, that they’re not educated, that they’re not workers, that they’re not…people! Unfortunately that’s the main vision. We need people to understand that we are people just like them; we had homes, families, jobs, schools and we lost it all because of the war, not because of us, not because we wanted this. Something horrible happened to us, and we are just trying to move forward. We just want to say that we are human, and we are really peaceful people. So there is a huge message behind this play, and it gives us the space to be ourselves and help people understand us in the right way.”
The director of Queens of Syria, Zoe Lafferty, was impressed to see the women adopt a professional attitude from the get-go: “When I went to Jordan I didn’t know what to expect and when I met [the actors] they were so articulate, so intelligent, so politically engaged, and so clear about what they wanted to say. It’s really not an easy task to take some of the most difficult life experiences you’ve had and speak about them on stage and I think that the determination and pride that they’ve done that with is so inspiring. I’m grateful that they’ve chosen to share this with a UK audience.”
Alongside the production there is also a very extensive education programme coordinated by the British Council, whose director Joel Bubbers explained: “We’re focussed on trying to create opportunities beyond humanitarian aid for those affected by the crisis, and help them rebuild their lives closer to home. We believe these projects are really important in providing opportunities that humanitarian aid can’t quite reach, addressing feelings of powerlessness, building new social networks, engaging with a wider community. We think that to build greater trust and understanding between the people of the UK and the people of Syria, and to get to the truth of the Syrian conflict, you have to go beyond the standard voices. We built an education pack that will be available as a teaching resource for schools on our online network, we are hoping to get the message to as many people as possible.”
The project is also supported by Oxfam, who were involved from the start and are helping find practical solutions. With so many different institutions working side by side, there is a great sense that the issue is being tackled with passion, efficiency and a real desire to bring about significant and lasting improvements. Queens of Syria provides an invaluable opportunity to see beyond the media filter and make direct contact with the protagonists of one of the worst crises the world faces.
Queens of Syria is on at the Young Vic from 5th until 9th July 2016 and ends it’s UK tour at the New London Theatre on 24th July 2016. Book your tickets here.
Watch the trailer for Queens of Syria here: