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The Calais camp was no laughing matter – but a new satire is helping refugees do just that

09 January, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya

The cast of Borderline, including on the floor in striped T-shirt ­Enayat, at the back in the white T-shirt Mohand and Sophie Besse, far left. Photo: Severine Sajous

IT may seem like an unusual topic for a comedy, but a new satire about the “Jungle Camp” in Calais is helping refugees learn to laugh again.

The cast of 13 actors and musicians starring in Borderline at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, includes seven refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria. Many have been on gruelling journeys and experienced painful isolation of being separated from their families – two were unaccompanied minors.

Director and therapist Sophie Besse came up with the idea for the play after spending a year and a half volunteering at the camp. She said she was impressed by the “sense of humour” and “resilience” of those she met and how the whole set-up was so “absurd that it was easy to turn it into a comedy”.

She said: “Everyone I was talking to was very concerned for me and I realised they were very scared of refugees. I decided I wanted to create something to change this image as fear can create hate and become quite dangerous.”

She recalled the Good Chance Theatre at the Jungle, a dramatic space run by volunteers which provided a meeting place and entertainment for refugees. One day, a fashion show was staged where people put together outfits made of donations and one man strutted on the stage in a pair of heels and a bikini.

“Everyone was laughing hysterically,” Ms Besse said. “I was so amazed at their sense of humour and how important it was for them to laugh.”

Ms Besse, 42, who runs theatre company Psychedelight, specialises in “social theatre” and has previously worked with prisoners. She discovered that for many refugees, coming to the country brought a whole new set of challenges and feelings and used their voices as the basis for the play.

“I got to know more about the situation of refugees in the UK: they are not allowed to work at first, they can be isolated and often there is guilt about leaving family behind and about people lost on the journey. In the Jungle you are in fight mode so you don’t think about it so much, but when you arrive here, post-traumatic stress disorder can kick in.”

The project gave many a chance to become involved in something positive, meet new friends and help them through a tough time. One Afghan cast member, 17-year-old Enayat, fled the country and travelled alone on a “traumatic” journey with smugglers, on which many others died. In the Calais camp he said he spent most of his days with the Good Chance Theatre but by night he was “trying to jump on lorries”. He arrived in the UK last April and now he enjoys “making people laugh” on the Cockpit stage.

“It is my first time in the country and I am very happy to see people coming to watch us acting in the show. Comedy is good,” he said.

Mohand, 28, left dictator-led Sudan and after some time in the Jungle, arrived in the country where he found himself feeling “isolated” and missing his community. The play helped.

“I like it at the theatre. It’s fun and I have met my new best friends here,” said Mohand, who now plans to perfect his English and go to university.

Ms Besse said another teenage Afghan cast member had been helping his journalist friend to translate Pashto into English until the Taliban got word of his work and the threats began. His parents decided to take him out of school for fear that he would be kidnapped on his way in, but as threats grew, they decided to send him to England where he now lives with a foster family.

There are also live musicians on stage, one of whom is a Palestinian man who spent 25 years in a refugee camp in Syria. He performs alongside his girlfriend, who he met when she came over to the country to learn Arabic.

Ms Besse, who is originally from France, first became involved with the Cockpit Theatre four years ago. When she told Cockpit theatre director Dave Wybrow about the project, he was keen to support the project and offered them the use the theatre to hold acting workshops and stage the show.

To book tickets visit: bit.ly/bookborderline

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