As winter closes in and food vouchers from the WFP and free medical aid from local municipalities remain uncertain for many refugees in Jordan, the relationship between refugees and their host communities continues to become increasingly relevant. So it's great to hear from people in Amman that they've been listening in to the first episodes of the drama. Next one is tomorrow! Here's a few pictures from production - never underestimate the importance of gesticulating while recording a radio show!
Syria Trojan Women Geneva tour is going ahead! We fly tonight to Geneva with nine of our cast. 3 days of rehearsal, then perform at CERN on Wednesday 22nd, invited by the Tallberg Foundation. Finally all our Jordanian re-entry permits and Swiss visas came through. Our cast are very excited. So are we.
In Jordan in pre-production of audio drama soap pilot, cowritten by the brilliant Syrian writer Wael Qadour, and the Jordanian writer Majd Hijjawi. Casting has begun and it looks like we will be recording in about three weeks. Working with Souriali Radio. Also looking at recording the soap in English as well so it can be broadcast in the UK and the US. Possibly even French….
Currently looking for Syrian and Jordanian radio actors in Amman.
Astonishing amounts of snow fell over the last two days, threatening rehearsals. We cancelled Friday as the buses taking the women and children couldn’t make it up the slopes. Saturday morning we awoke to find that a foot of snow had fallen overnight, as part of unusual weather over the whole region. It snowed in Cairo for the first time in a hundred years.
The Trojan Women, determined not to lose another day of rehearsal, got on the buses and tried to make it up the treacherous slope (the theatre is at the top of one of Amman’s steepest hills). When the buses got stuck they got out and walked through the thick snow with their children, beating the production team to the theatre.
Luckily despite the late start we managed a good few hours of rehearsals. There was also a wonderful bonus- during their enforced idleness the day before the Trojan Women had prepared a delicious Syrian feast for cast, crew and everyone involved in the production.
Today we are struggling through the snow again, while most of Amman is shut.
We are in the National Centre for Culture and Arts where the production has moved and where the performances will be held. The doors to the stage are firmly closed, and the predominant hubbub is that of the children in the crèche playing, and singing along with their carers.
I am talking the psychologist who comes in weekly to help the women and children work through their problems. He has been working with refugees for some time now. He is himself a refugee precisely because he was holding psychotherapy sessions with people in the suburbs of Damascus, and became unpopular with the regime for doing so. He went into hiding, carrying on his sessions before finding a way to leave, and came to Jordan. I ask him about the psychological problems that they typically face.
“The general problems are anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. Despite the fact that they have moved away from danger, they still carry that danger inside them i.e. the fears that they had when they fled. And one of the main triggers of their fears is uncertainty about the future. This is all tied into the loss they have suffered in the process of experiencing revolution, war and displacement. With this they are dealing with the loss they have suffered- loss of relatives, friends and loved ones, loss of their homes, jobs, communities and all that goes into making a normal life.”
How does the play, and in particular the drama workshops, help the refugees deal with their psychological problems?
“To put it another way, let me explain to you how psychological problems affect refugees. For the majority, 70 %, once their basic needs have been met- safety, food, shelter- they get back into their old routine as best they can. For 20 % there is a need for something more: to be able to express their experiences and talk through their anxieties. The other 10 % have such bad psychological problems they need proper clinical care.
“The Trojan Women project falls into the middle 20 %. It helps the women organise the thoughts, feelings and anxieties in their heads, because the experiences are not organised in their heads- they are all mixed up, feeding depression and fear.
“The importance about groups and projects like these is that people migrate within the areas of psychological disturbance I have just described to you. You can’t see everyone one to one, but you can’t afford only to treat the worst 10 %, because if you neglect the other 90 % they can migrate further into the more depressed bands- what I mean is that if you ignore the 90 % you might find that they will eventually become the worst 10 %. So it is important that people can have access to the sort of thing we are doing here with The Trojan Women.”
He also works with the children in the Trojan Women crèche. How does he find they are dealing with the same issues that face their mothers?
“Children have no way of rationalising these psychological problems- they are unable to observe what is happening to them. Also their parents are traumatised, so are unable to offer the “safe place” that other children have with their parents. And they are more responsive to intrusion and disruption. For this reason you have to deal with the whole family not just the child.
“What we give them at the crèche is a variety of activities, underpinned by routine. Routine is important- school is like a base: it gives meaning to the day, and we have a curriculum. But we also have other activities such as drawing, dancing and singing and we help each child to find the best activity for them to help work through their problems.”
I talked to one of the women who has been taking care of the children since the beginning of the project. She is also a refugee and her sister is in the play. Her own son is in the crèche. I asked how it was in the beginning.
“It was very hard with these children, because of their psychological state. When they first started they couldn’t trust anyone: they were completely distracted and couldn’t interact properly with anyone and they were constantly screaming, and hitting each other. They broke the toys we gave them, and attacked and hit us carers. Others couldn’t even let go of their mothers. It took them about ten days to settle. Gradually they began to trust us and ask us for things like a normal child would. I used to run a crèche in Damascus, helping out mothers who had to go to work. So I know how different these kids are to the ones who had been living normal lives.
What sort of difference has the psychologist made?
“Oh the children love him! He really helps them- he gets down to their level and plays with them with music, drawing balloons and that sort of thing, but it is still very hard. That said the kids do love it here. When it’s a day off on Friday, they always say, “Can we go to the creche? When are we going to the crèche?” So God know what will happen when it’s over!”
Her own son is hovering around us. I ask her how he has adapted to becoming a refugee.
“He is very traumatised. He was a very good boy, very obedient. Perhaps I spoil him. But when the bombing started he was very afraid. Even now when he sees any plane he says “It’s going to bomb us!” Ever since he always clings to me.”
At this point he moves away about ten yards, and then comes back. “That is the furthest he ever goes. He sleeps with me too. If I have to get up in the middle of the night he wakes up and says “Mum stay next to me so I can keep you warm!” he can never let me out of his sight.
“When we were in Damascus we lived in a big apartment building, and some of his cousins lived there too. They could go and play with their bicycles on the roof. Now, where we live, he never gets out to play, there is no interaction.”
The sound of increasing noise and commotion comes from the crèche- wailing even. She smiles, gets up and says she has to get back. Her little boy trails after her.
From the rehearsal room behind us comes the sound of women doing vocal exercises- all on one clear note: “ka-lay-mo-now-la-noo-ma-reeee”. Suaad, a mother in her twenties, has skipped the beginning of the next session to talk to me about her experiences. I ask her what the play meant to her.
“It meant a lot. Even before I knew anything about the play I wanted to do this. I had always dreamed of being interviewed on tv to tell people about what has been happening to us in Damascus. We lived in Saida Zainab, an area being destroyed by the fighting, but nobody knew about it- it was being ignored by journalists and the news. At last here was some sort of platform to speak, especially when they said they would be weaving our stories into the text.”
And what was her story? “My husband was a soldier in the Syrian army. Neither of us supported the Revolution- we believed the regime when they told us it was all being done by terrorists and foreigners. Then he was asked to kill his fellow countrymen, and do things he thought wrong. So he deserted.”
Did he join the Free Syrian Army? “No. He and I just wanted to get away from the fighting. We left Damascus for Deraa, and then came across the border into Jordan. We went to Zaatari camp (the main Syrian refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan), but then got someone to sponsor us so we could leave and stay in Amman.”
Does he approve of her being in the play? “Oh yes! He is very keen on me doing this. He thinks it is very important to be able to speak out. He would like to help in any way.”
And does now that she is deep into the text of Euripides’ play, written twenty five centuries ago, does it have any relevance for her?
Suaad looks pained: “When Hecuba turns to have a last look at Troy she makes a speech about never seeing her country ever again, and I cry when I read it, because when we were at the border about to cross into Jordan my husband told me to look back at Syria for one last time, because we might never see it again. That for me is the most heart wrenching part of the play.”