Re­liv­ing a har­row­ing jour­ney — on­stage

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Steven Zeitchik re­port­ing from athens

Af­ter trekking hun­dreds of miles through fierce cli­mates and vil­lages filled with mur­der­ous ban­dits, the mi­grants had fi­nally reached their des­ti­na­tion.

Or, at least, the boat that might carry them to it.

The ves­sel was a rick­ety thing, its white paint peel­ing and hull crack­ing. It could hardly be trusted for a Sun­day pic­nic, let alone a 200mile voy­age across a heav­ily pa­trolled Aegean.

But the young men climbed in just the same, hop­ing, in the jour­ney to Greece, to get as far as pos­si­ble from their na­tive lands. Away from crush­ing poverty and the vice- like grip of groups such as the Tal­iban. To­ward Europe, what­ever that was.

As they piled in the boat, Reza, a 28- year- old from Iran, re­counted some of the dan­gers that still awaited: frost­bite, cruel coast guard of­fi­cers, a shipwreck.

A young man named Ay­dim de­scribed how, on his over­land odyssey from poverty- stricken Bangladesh, he had seen a man fall un­con­scious in the frigid moun­tains and die shortly af­ter.

“I didn’t know him. I

‘ On the one hand, I want to show how hard the trip was, be­cause it’s not re­ally what peo­ple here think. They hear “boats” and they don’t re­al­ize what we go through.’

Reza,

from Iran

looked for his con­tact in­for­ma­tion but couldn’t find it. So I left him there,” Ay­dim said, his words filled with a mix of re­gret and prag­ma­tism. A voice cut in. “Good, good. It’s re­ally work­ing now. But we have to make sure each story stands out. And we have fig­ure out how to get the boat into the room faster.”

The mi­grants had un­der­gone all they were de­scrib­ing. But they were no longer on the open seas — they were in a re­hearsal space in an Athens ware­house dis­trict. And the voice cut­ting in to keep them in line? Not a dou­ble- cross­ing smug­gler, but Yolanda Markopoulou, one of the Athens theater scene’s most ven­er­ated di­rec­tors.

As South­ern Europe faces a stag­ger­ing inf lux of mi­grants, author­i­ties such as the Euro­pean Union bor­der agency, Fron­tex, have sought to fig­ure out is­sues of ju­ris­dic­tion. Na­tional gov­ern­ments have en­gaged in com­pli­cated pol­icy cal­cu­la­tions, if not al­ways am­bi­tious res­cue ef­forts. Non­govern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions have tried to of­fer lan­guage and job train­ing. But in the quest for a so­lu­tion, one small theater group has looked to a more un­con­ven­tional place.

It hopes to turn suf­fer­ing into art, and art into cathar­sis.

The mi­grant cri­sis has ap­proached epic pro­por­tions in Europe: More than 100,000 have ar­rived on the con­ti­nent this year. A daunt­ing num­ber have also died en route — more than 1,250 in a se­ries of Mediter­ranean shipwrecks in April alone.

Greece has been at the cri­sis’ epi­cen­ter. About 48,000 mi­grants have landed here since Jan­uary — the sec­ond- high­est num­ber in all of Europe, and a fig­ure that comes on top of the hun­dreds of thou­sands who’ve streamed into the coun­try over the pre­vi­ous few years.

The mi­grants en­dure harsh cir­cum­stances on their trips, then find them­selves even more adrift when they ar­rive. Markopoulou be­lieved her theater group could of­fer an un­usual way to help them cope with the trauma of dis­place­ment.

“They don’t have fam­i­lies here, and they don’t have rea­son to talk about what hap­pened,” said Markopoulou, who de­vised the pro­gram in con­junc­tion with an NGO called AMAKA. “What’s a bet­ter way to come to terms with it than a play?”

Ay­dim agreed. “I can now com­mu­ni­cate to peo­ple what used to be only in my head,” said the 25- year- old, who, like many mi­grants, asked that his last name not to be re­vealed be­cause of safety con­cerns.

On this night, the mi­grants were re­hears­ing for a show at an Athens cul­tural fes­ti­val. Ti­tled “We Are the Per­sians,” it weaves their back sto­ries into a se­ries of reen­act­ments, with the goal of pro­vid­ing a more hu­man pic­ture of the mi­grant cri­sis. As they pulled the boat across the stage to rep­re­sent their jour­neys, the scene was sur­real, at once a pointed re­minder of their strug­gles and an in­ad­e­quate sim­u­la­tion of them.

An Afghan named Khalil prac­ticed a scene that had him reen­act­ing his de­ten­tion by the Greek coast guard. He and other mi­grants picked up guns to repli­cate their cap­tors’ poses, then threw them­selves on the f loor while dra­matic mu­sic played.

“They held guns to us,” he belted out. “They took our money. They kept us in ter­ri­ble places.”

Khalil, 25, f led Afghanistan about 10 years ago at the urg­ing of his fa­ther, who wor­ried that an in­creas­ingly ac­tive Tal­iban in their town would ei­ther kill or re­cruit his son. Af­ter hid­ing out in Greece for years, he was granted asy­lum last year.

It might seem un­com­fort­able to re­live, mul­ti­ple times each re­hearsal night, what you’ve spent years try­ing to for­get. But those who went through the or­deal say that, with its blend of larger artis­tic goals and con­crete tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments, theater of­fers a unique kind of es­cape. The more a mo­ment be­comes about block­ing, the less it’s about lost friends and a fear of death.

“It was very hard at first to go through it again,” Khalil said as he in­haled deeply on a cig­a­rette dur­ing a re­hearsal break. “But each time it got a lit­tle eas­ier. And it was easy to act — all I had to do was re­mem­ber the fear. Markopoulou and AMAKA had pre­vi­ously worked with pris­on­ers. But about three years ago, she be­gan work­ing with this group of mi­grants, bet­ting that they might take to it more easily than psy­chi­atric ther­apy.

For the first year, most of the young men didn’t even speak. Markopoulou, a di­rec­tor known for am­bi­tious projects such as a tour­ing ver­sion of “The Iliad,” tried to get them com­fort­able mov­ing in un­usual ways. Soon she grad­u­ated to im­prov ex­er­cises.

And this month, she and the mi­grants put on a ma­jor pro­duc­tion for the first time, stag­ing sev­eral per­for­mances of “We Are the Per­sians” at the pop­u­lar Athens Fes­ti­val. The au­di­ence of about 150 at each per­for­mance was moved — by the sto­ries on­stage and back sto­ries that inspired them.

The mi­grant ac­tors were also paid for per­form­ing for the first time, bring­ing them no small amount of joy, given that it ri­valed the day wages most made in their me­nial la­bor. ( The group — in­clud­ing Markopoulou and the crew of set, light­ing and other de­sign­ers — is en­tirely vol­un­teer- based. The props and re­hearsal space are do­nated as well.)

To some, the idea of ex­pend­ing ef­fort in this way might seem strange; these peo­ple need long- term em­ploy­ment, not Eu­gene O’Neill. But the mi­grants say that the ad­van­tages will stay with them a lot longer than a few eu­ros.

“On the one hand, I want to show how hard the trip was, be­cause it’s not re­ally what peo­ple here think,” Reza, who has a mix of swag­ger and thought­ful­ness, said as he took a break from re­hears­ing. “They hear ‘ boats’ and they don’t re­al­ize what we go through. But I also do it for me, to re­mind me of what hap­pened, so that I never for­get.”

Reza’s fam­ily f led Afghanistan for Iran be­fore he was born. As part of the Hazara mi­nor­ity, they spoke a di­alect sim­i­lar to that used by many Ira­ni­ans. But Afghans weren’t ac­corded the same rights in Iran as na­tives. Reza faced heavy dis­crim­i­na­tion and even­tu­ally f led. En route from Iran to the Turk­ish coast, a good friend died un­der the for­bid­ding con­di­tions.

For all the peril of their pre- Europe lives, mi­grants be­gan to face many of their dif­fi­cul­ties only af­ter they ar­rived.

Khalil has seen his fam­ily scat­ter across Europe and Asia, and he hasn’t seen any of them since he left Afghanistan. Reza lacks an asy­lum card, so he can’t leave the coun­try to visit fam­ily mem­bers in Iran. Start­ing a new fam­ily here isn’t pos­si­ble ei­ther, be­cause with­out those pa­pers he is pro­hib­ited from mar­ry­ing. Most of the mi­grants live in es­pe­cially poor parts of Athens, where drug use and home­less­ness are high.

But they have also found rea­sons to be op­ti­mistic, and re­hearsal is in­ter­rupted sev­eral times as the mi­grants are struck with a case of the gig­gles, of­ten in the most op­pres­sive scenes.

In one mo­ment from “We Are the Per­sians,” things are so bleak on the boat that there is only one way to re­spond. Ay­dim gets up and be­gins singing and danc­ing, prompt­ing oth­ers on board to join in.

“I had a lot of fear when I first ar­rived,” Ay­dim said, sit­ting on the side­lines dur­ing a short break a few min­utes later. “But I learned that there’s not much to be afraid of any­more.”

He stood up to re­turn to re­hearsal, ges­tur­ing to the set: “Be­cause what­ever hap­pens on that boat, it’s al­ways the f loor un­der it, not wa­ter.”

Elina Fessa

MI­GRANTS from dif­fer­ent na­tions re­hearse for the play “We Are the Per­sians” in Athens. Greece has been at the epi­cen­ter of the mi­grant cri­sis in Europe.

Elina Fessa

“I T WAS VERY

hard at f irst to go through it again,” one of the ac­tors said of the reen­act­ments in the play.

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