‘You’re in a new world’: refugee actors share their journey on stage

·3-min read

For most people, bed is a place of comfort, somewhere to recline and switch off. For others, it is a scene of displacement, a symbol of the precariousness of life.

For eight months, Syed Haleem Najibi moved from bed to bed. The now 23-year-old fled Afghanistan as an unaccompanied minor in 2012, making his way through Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy and France, before finally arriving in the UK.

“I was held in a detention centre in Greece for five months. There were 70 of us in a room. There wasn’t enough space to sit down, let alone sleep, so people would stand around the corners of the room and make a space for others to sleep in.”

Najibi is one of seven performers in a new play, All the Beds I Have Slept In, produced by Phosphoros Theatre, a charity that works exclusively with refugee actors aged 18-25, all of whom came to the UK as unaccompanied minors.

The play, which is touring venues across England this autumn, uses beds to reflect on various points of the actors’ forced migration journeys. It includes a “charpai on my roof in Afghanistan” and “under a bridge in Liverpool Street”.

Najibi, who heard about Phosphoros in a housing project, is one of the charity’s trustees and co-leader of its new young company for over-14s.

“It gave me the opportunity to share my experiences,” he said. “Not having enough food, not having a proper toilet. It was hard, especially when you’re underage. When you arrive in the UK you don’t realise it’s just the beginning of another journey. You’re in a new world, adapting to the conditions and the lifestyle.”

Phosphoros’s co-artistic director, Kate Duffy-Syedi, said the experience of refugees was especially prescient after recent events in Afghanistan.

“The asylum system in the UK has become more and more brutal,” she said. “Hostility is written into policy. But in reality the care and solidarity within the refugee community is enormous. That’s the story we wanted to tell.”

Drama was known to boost confidence, teamwork and communication, she added. “It can help explore feelings of trauma, and help us think about our lives differently.”

Duffy-Syedi started the company with two other women – Dawn Harrison and Rosanna Jahangard - in 2015, “which was coincidentally the time that refugee narratives became a point of discussion after the Syrian crisis. We saw the interest go massively up and then slowly trickle away. But once again we’re seeing that level of concern.” Today, the other artistic directors are Harrison and Juliet Styles.

Mardin Mahmoudpour, 18, recently came to the UK from Kurdistan. “When I arrived I was in a very bad situation. After my long journey and with only basic English I felt like I was the loneliest person in the world. Lockdown only made it worse,” he said.

So when Mahmoudpour encountered Phosphoros, he enrolled immediately. “They became my friends and slowly I felt less alone. Refugees and asylum seekers don’t have a loud voice. So at Phosphoros theatre, we try to be their voice in the only way we can, which is acting. Together we become loud.”

The actors said one of the things they took greatest pleasure in was audiences’ reactions. “People have changed their careers,” Najibi said. “A teacher, after seeing our show, started to work with a charity that helps refugees in Calais and the UK. It does have an effect. It changes mindsets.”

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