More please! Musical proves hit for Syrian refugee children

One NGO is using drama and a dollop of the musical Oliver! to help refugees overcome isolation

A sell-out Arabic production of the musical Oliver! by Syrian and Jordanian children in Amman showcased talent and the power of drama to help refugees overcome isolation and bring communities together.

For four nights in early September, 40 children aged 4 to 16 joined a small cast of professional actors to perform the musical, which is based on the Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. The story tells of an orphan struggling with poverty, social stigma and unscrupulous characters in Victorian London. But this was no ordinary rendition: Refuge Production’s adaptation placed the action in the modern Middle East, where children dream of ‘foul’ (beans) and falafel, rather than cold jelly custard.

“We chose Oliver! because the children could identify with him,” said Charlotte Eagar, co-founder of Refuge Productions. “The key thing about these drama therapy projects is that you need to choose a play or film where people play characters similar to themselves. That allows your cast to work out their own trauma and depression [through] the text.”

After four years of brutal conflict, initiatives such as Oliver! herald a shift beyond emergency aid – such as blankets and food – to the long-term support Syrian refugees, with scant prospect of returning home soon, need.

The psychological effects of displacement and violence can leave young people feeling rootless and anxious, according to an analysis earlier this year of Syrian refugee children’s drawings by charity Save the Children. If left unaddressed, such feelings can morph into anti-social behaviour or substance abuse later in life, psychologist Vittoria Ardino told Philanthropy Age in June.

Refuge Productions first used drama as therapy with Syrian women in Jordan some two years ago when performing a Greek play about refugees. The cast asked the organisation to do something similar for their children and Oliver! in Arabic was born.

The organisation trained five teachers, who ran humanitarian music and drama workshops over the course of seven months for 100 children at a community centre in Al Hashmi Al Shamali, a poor part of the Jordanian capital; 40 made it through auditions to grace the stage.

Refuge Productions chose children living in Amman on UNHCR’s advice because urban refugees are often more isolated and lonely than those in camps, said Eagar. More than 520,000 Syrian refugees registered with the UN – or 83 per cent of those in Jordan – live in urban areas, according to the agency.

“Being a refugee is a hideous shock. You lose all the certainties of life – you don’t only lose your home, you also lose your idea of who you are,” said Eagar. “If you’re an urban refugee, you’re still desperately trying to be who you once were.”

She added: “Leijla Mustafa [who played Shokolata] told me that from the first moment we were together we were a new family.”

The £70,000 (about $108,000) workshop programme was covered by donations from theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh’s foundation and other British philanthropists. Refuge Productions is supported by philanthropists from the UK, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as well as aid agencies Oxfam and UNICEF.

As well as discovering some vocal talent among the young Syrian cast, the impact on the children’s behaviour was astounding, according to Eager. Where the refugees were once shy and withdrawn, by the time of the performance the children were more confident and “happy”, Eagar said.

The drama workshops also broke down barriers: those between girls and boys, as well between the Syrian and Jordanian kids. The performance ended with a Jordanian Artful Dodger (NoqNoq in Arabic) singing “Consider yourself at home” to a Syrian Oliver, backed by a Jordanian adult choir.

“This is a great play to choose,” the young Oliver, 13-year-old Syrian Fadi, told Eagar in her piece about the play in Newsweek. “Because Oliver is a kid fighting for his rights, just like me.”

Three of the young actors – who took the roles of Oliver, the Artful Dodger and Shokolata – have been offered scholarships at the Haya Cultural Centre, Amman. The production was able to call on regional cultural heavyweights Khaled Abol Naga, an Egyptian director, and Zainab Moborak, Disney’s top Arabic translator.

Oliver! was staged for free at Amman’s Royal Cultural Centre. The 315-seat theatre was packed to capacity each night, according to the organisers. The Jordanian business community clubbed together to support the cost of the performances – at around £35,000 – although there remains a shortfall of £15,000, said Eagar.

The curtain has not fallen on Oliver! completely, however. Refuge Productions plans to release a charity record of the songs – sung half in English, half in Arabic – later this year to raise money for the Syrian refugee crisis and more drama therapy projects. The organisation is looking for £20,000 to finalise the album. Also in the pipeline is a longer run in a 500-seat theatre in Amman in November.

If all goes to plan, Eagar plans further workshops and productions with Syrian refugees and local children in Egypt and Lebanon during 2016.

“I think people are beginning to be more aware of [the need for psychosocial support],” said Eagar, who worked in Bosnia during the Balkan war as a journalist. “One of the things you notice with refugees is they’re often very lonely, very bored and very miserable… They have lost their purpose in life. By giving them something to get their teeth into [you can help restore that].”