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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

How European cities are engaging with refugees through poignant art forms

Countries including Britain, Sweden and France are reaching out to help entertain and connect refugees.
Cast members of Queens of Syria. Deema Dabis
Cast members of Queens of Syria. Deema Dabis

Today, when the Young Vic theatre in London hosts the first performance of Queens of Syria, a modern retelling of the Euripides tale Trojan Women, something extraordinary is going to happen.

The entire cast will be composed of female Syrian refugees.

Their story has already been chronicled in Yasmin Fedda’s documentary Queens of Syria, which won her the best documentary director award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2014.

The idea for a theatre group for refugees in Jordan – which was launched almost three years ago to help refugees process their psychological scars – originated in Britain, so it’s fitting that the production’s 50 members will now tour the United Kingdom after wrapping at the Young Vic.

“At that point in 2013, there was not much interest in putting on events for refugees and this was essentially drama therapy, but that has all started to change,” says the stage producer Georgina Paget. “You have to look after the basic psychological needs of refugees to ensure that they are able to function in their new societies.”

Across Europe, groups are increasingly springing up to help entertain and connect refugees using various forms of art. In Sweden, the Pink Station film club, launched recently as part of Refugees Welcome Stockholm, held its first screening last month.

“We screened The Idol, in Arabic with Swedish subtitles,” said founder Anna Karolina Hagnefur. “Around 60 people turned up, more than half were newcomers, or refugees if you like, and the rest native Swedes. There was a lot of cheering and applauding in the audience when the bus came to drive people back to their accommodation, people were keen to know when they could come again.”

The cinema club has lined up the 2014 Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (which screened at the former Abu Dhabi Film Festival) and 2012 Saudi film Wadjda for future screenings and is trying to raise funds for select classic Swedish films to be subtitled in Arabic.

Secret Cinema held a film screening in the refugee camp at Calais, France, last September – along with screenings around the world to raise awareness of the inhabitants’ plight. Now an organisation called Art Refuge UK is raising funds to conduct an art therapy project there.

Art Refuge UK has raised funds to run an art-therapy project in the Calais camp, which houses a mural of Steve Jobs – the son of a Syrian immigrant from Homs – painted by the notorious British street artist Banksy. In Amsterdam, one of Europe’s most famous venues, The Paradiso Club, has hosted concerts featuring bands whose members are undocumented citizens – or refugees without identification ­papers.

In Italy, ELSE, an independent press based in Rome, has, since 2010, been printing stories and poems of immigrants living in the city. Other groups, such as Graffiti SPAM, have also used immigrants to contribute to their art. Part of the philosophy is that an appreciation of art, whether it’s painting, music or film, unites people who don’t share a language and have different heritages.

Last summer, on the banks of the Seine, the Paris exhibition Dreams of Humanity, featuring photographs taken by Syrian refugees in Iraq, was organised in collaboration with the artist Reza, who sees photographs as a tool to allow the refugees to tell their own stories.

It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Queens of Syria producer Paget, who can see the cast from Jordan gain confidence from showing people their work.

Still, art is often only a temporary escape, she says.

“You are halfway through a rehearsal and you get asked by a cast member if you can pay them a little early as they have just had a cousin kidnapped in Syria and need to send some money.”

Queens of Syria is at the Young Vic from Tuesday, July 5 until until Saturday, July 9 and will then tour the UK. For more information on cinema screenings in Sweden, visit the Refugees Welcome Stockholm Facebook page

artslife@thenational.ae