In Malaysia, refugees are finding that “theater can be their voice” Refugee news

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – As the lights go out and darkness surrounds the hall, three young girls take the stage under three bright lights to talk to the audience and tell the stories of three refugee girls from countries far apart but similar.

This scene is part of a play by the refugee-led theater group Parastoo, which has been playing in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, for five years. The Roof That Crashed is the latest of many plays written and directed by Parastoo founder, Afghan writer and director Saleh Sepas, who is also a refugee.

For two of the three girls, the play was the first time they performed on stage, but finding rehearsal venues for the amateur group was a challenge.

“I used to drive them to public parks to do our rehearsals. We just wanted to achieve something with this show despite the difficulties and we did it, “Sepas told Al Jazeera.

Sepas founded the Refugee Theater Group in 2017, partly because he wanted to help himself as a writer, but also to help the refugees themselves.

Afghan writer and director Saleh Sepas speaks to the audience about Parastoo's latest production
Afghan writer and director Saleh Sepas founded Parastoo in 2017, inspired by the art forms and ideas of the Theater of the Oppressed [Wael Qarssifi/ Al Jazeera]

Parastoo is based on the ideas of the Theater of the Oppressed – a theatrical form first developed in the 1970s by Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal – which uses theater as a means to promote social and political change and engage audiences in the play. inviting them to analyze and discuss what they see.

“Theater as an art has this power to bring about change, to enable and to bring refugees out of isolation,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I realized that refugees in Malaysia have no voice and the theater can be their voice, I wanted to help our communities.”

Challenging stereotypes

Parastoo’s latest play tells the story of three young girls from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Yemen as they tell the audience how they came to be. refugees in Malaysia. The girls share stories of war, death, loss and trauma, with powerful words about the childhood lost by the war.

The play is part of the Parastoo Converging Paths show, which includes the screening of a film about refugees by Parastoo producer and communications adviser, Iranian director Amin Kamrani.

Sepas told Al Jazeera that he wants those who watch the show to know and understand the reasons that bring refugees to Malaysia, as many Malaysians do not. I understand the lack of choice they have when fleeing war.

“Some people think we are coming here for money and opportunities, and I wanted to challenge this misinformation about refugees,” he said.

Kamrani’s The Man in the Shot also includes the stories of three refugees in Malaysia – a boxer from Afghanistan, an Iranian artist and a queer poet and writer from Syria – and offers the audience a glimpse into their individual lives and struggles.

The audience watches the last performance of Parastoo in Kuala Lumpur
Parastoo’s latest show also included a screening of a film about refugees in Malaysia by Iranian director Amin Kamrani. The idea is to change the perception of refugees among Malaysians [Supplied/Al Jazeera]

Kamrani says he wanted to break stereotypes with his film. He explains that the discussion about refugees in Malaysia is often dehumanizing for refugees, as they are presented as a mass of people with similar ideas or reduced to numbers and figures.

“I wanted to tell human stories because as human beings we connect with art and still see a part of ourselves in other people, despite the differences,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Art can remind us of our values ​​and shared experiences as people in times of uncertainty, and I believe that being human in times of atrocities is an act of activism.

Sepas is one of 3,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers currently in Malaysia. Afghans are one of the smallest refugee communities in the country, with nearly 183,000 refugees and asylum seekers by May 2022. according to the UN refugee agency.

Refugees in Malaysia are struggling with unemployment and educational opportunities because local laws do not recognize their existence and Malaysia is not a party to the UN convention. As a result, refugees are considered undocumented migrants and are deprived of the right to work or access to formal education.

In addition to their struggles, refugees in Malaysia have to go through years of waiting for potential resettlement in a third country. Such resettlement is not guaranteed and many end up in obscurity without a vision for their future and uncertainty about their next destination.

Sepas describes the situation as “painful” – noting that some people have waited more than 12 years – but believes in the power of art to help refugees cope with long-term insecurity.

“Imagine a boat floating in the middle of the sea and suddenly breaking. “People in the water will fight and swim in the hope of surviving, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he told Al Jazeera.

“With art, we try to stay alive in this sea of ​​uncertainty.”

A scene of hope

Many refugees live with various mental health problems as a result not only of the horrors that forced them to flee their home countries, but also of the realities of life in host countries such as Malaysia.

or 2021 study published in the medical journal The Lancet on mental health services for refugees in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic found that the prevalence of mental disorders is extremely high.

“Up to 43 percent [of refugees] meeting the criteria for at least one of the common mental disorders, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and complex grief, ”it said.

But facing all these challenges, Parastoo continues to make more shows that tell the stories of refugees and provides a platform for refugee actors to present themselves to a diverse audience in Malaysia.

Kamrani's film includes the stories of refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria and their lives in Malaysia
Amin Kamrani’s film includes the stories of refugees, including an Iranian artist, and their lives in Malaysia [Wael Qarssifi/ Al Jazeera]

With many performances over the years and more to come, Sepas believes the theater can give hope to refugees from all communities as they see their stories told to the world on stage.

In addition, Parastoo is close to achieving the long-awaited dream of having its own space in Kuala Lumpur, with the launch of its new art center later this year.

Sepas says the center will allow Parastoo to produce more shows of better quality and will provide much-needed space to gather young refugees.

He plans to use the center for art, music and writing lessons and a refugee book club.

“We want refugees to read again and reconnect with the education they are deprived of due to legal issues,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Young refugees need space and can produce great things. All they need is someone who sees great potential in them. ”

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