Four young men who crossed Europe illegally as unaccompanied minors to seek asylum in the UK are returning to the mainland with their heads held high as actors and activists.
Emirjon Hoxhaj of Albania, Goitom Fesshaye and Tewodros Aregawe, both of Eritrea, and Syed Haleem Najibi of Afghanistan, who form part of refugee theatre company Phosphoros Theatre, are presenting their own stories during a local conference tackling children lost in migration, being organised this week by the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society, and at two sold-out shows at Spazju Kreattiv on Thursday.
The staging of Pizza Shop Heroes in Malta marks an important milestone for the cast.
“It’s really significant for us to go back to mainland Europe because this time we will be travelling across the borders with legal paperwork in hand,” Mr Haleem Najibi said prior to leaving from London.
“We won’t be scared, we won’t be hiding from the police, we won’t have our stomachs screaming out for food. We’ll be carrying our papers in our hands proudly, as professionals, actors and activists.”
He left his country at the age of 13 to flee persecution and was only 14 when he arrived in the UK.
“I went through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey in cars, boarded a boat to Greece, then a lorry to Italy, followed by a train to France and a lorry to the UK,” the 20-year-old told the Times of Malta.
“I wasn’t in control of my journey at any point and it was scary and I felt hopeless. One of the most unforgettable experiences was at the detention centre in Greece where I spent five months. It was really like a prison and I was kept there with adult men even though I was underage.”
He joined Phosphoros Theatre soon after it was founded in 2015 by playwright Dawn Harrison, a scriptwriter for hit TV shows such as Emmerdale, and her daughter, Kate Duffy, a former refugee caseworker.
“I wasn’t an actor but the process sounded interesting to me and I wanted to be part of it. As a refugee, I hadn’t seen many people giving people like us a chance to talk about our experiences,” said Mr Haleem Naijibi, who dreams of becoming an engineer while continuing to campaign for refugees and asylum seekers.
If the situation in his country changes, he eventually would like to return to his homeland to help his community and neighbouring countries.
Pizza Shop Heroes sees the four actors working a shift in a typical takeaway shop, while discussing their past, present and future. This includes the long, harrowing journeys to get to the UK in boats and lorries as separated children, conversations with absent mothers, to imagining the fathers they will be when they will have teenage children of their own.
“The most important part of our work is that the actors gain control over how their experience as separated child refugees is represented,” pointed out Ms Duffy, who is co-artistic director of the show.
We’ll be carrying our papers in our hands proudly, as professionals, actors and activists
Despite the title, the play is not meant to portray its protagonists as heroes or as victims in a bid to make the audience cry.
“We hope that our protagonists come across as the three-dimensional individuals they are – not heroes and certainly not passive victims but passionate, funny, talented men who have had to grow up fast in the extreme circumstances that forced migration brings,” Ms Duffy said.
She also joins them on stage and together they explore some of the prejudices professionals within the refugee care sector come across.
The play, in fact, aims to be an eye-opener and provide a counter-narrative to the dominant stereotypes abundant in the media about refugees and asylum seekers.
“Refugees are commonly viewed as a threat to our shores, and so to reject this, they are too often constructed as infantilised victims, stripped of their agency and decision-making,” Ms Duffy noted.
“We use theatre to disrupt this and our narrative is led by experts of their own experience. We remind the audience that there is an element of complicity and responsibility about whether we are hospitable or hostile to people seeking safety.”
Speaking of the local performance, Ms Duffy reiterated its significance especially since the refugee theatre group finds many obstacles to setting foot onstage.
“When it comes to performing outside of the UK, it’s been impossible until now because our actors haven’t all had the right to travel,” she said. “Our trip to Malta will be the first time most of our cast will fly in a plane and for everyone it will be the first time they’ll travel across Europe with legal documents. Particularly for our Eritrean actors, who most likely went past Malta on their long journeys, the difference in circumstances is huge.
“From hiding in the back of lorries to being welcomed by the President of Malta as honoured guests, this trip is extraordinary.”
The group hopes to see members of the local refugee community as well as individuals taking part in solidarity efforts during the shows. They are also expecting key decision-makers from the UN, EU and international NGOs among the audience at the Lost in Migration: Global Strategies and Political Commitments conference, being held between today and Friday at the University of Malta Valletta Campus.
“Malta has shown hospitality to many forced migrants coming across the Mediterranean,” Ms Duffy remarked. “We hope our show offers a reminder that refugees have a huge amount to contribute to Europe and that as host countries, we should offer welcome, respect and practical assistance, while remembering the colonial and imperialist legacy that Europe has had in many of their countries.”
Pizza Shop Heroes will be performed on Thursday February 21 at 6pm and 9pm at Spazju Kreattiv.