“I walked for nine hours,” said Arwa. “The sun scratched hot as hell. It was Kurdistan in August. 40 degrees. I could have drunk the deepest ocean and the mountain was steep. I couldn’t breathe. The smuggler was pushing my arse. He said, ‘I’m going to f*** you when we get there.’ But I couldn’t complain because he could have thrown me off the mountain.”
Arwa is a Syrian-Palestinian actress. She decided to come to the UK after her hometown, Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp which turned into a suburb of Damascus – a place she described as an “angry city” full of second and third generation Palestinian refugees who felt trapped because they had no future – was razed to the ground in fighting between ISIS and President Assad’s troops. She left behind her family, her mother, her sisters, and her beloved Golden retriever, Jacko.
It took her five weeks to get from Syria to London and cost several thousand pounds in payments to smugglers – she luckily managed to escape from the sexual predator and only chose smugglers she trusted after that.
Arwa filmed part of her journey on her iphone. We see her showing us the wounds on her legs, her panting, exhausted, face, the forests, the cliffs.
“I really thought I’d die,” she said. “I hoped my phone would be found and people would know what happened.”
She arrived on a false passport, flying from Corfu to Gatwick. “I felt so ashamed coming to a country where I know they don’t want me, but I had no choice. My poor angry city was completely destroyed in the war.”
Arwa is the inspiration for our new play, Trojans UK 22. We have a cast of a dozen Ukrainian, Syrian and Afghan refugees, five of whom were professional performers in their own countries. Trojans UK 22 is the latest production from our Trojan Women Project, a combined psycho-social support and communications drama project for refugees, the result of three months of workshops. The weekly workshops include a hot lunch, and a creche for the children. Our cast shares their stories of war and exile and work them into the text of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women, a play about refugees.
Trojans UK 22 has a showing, directed by Shani Erez and Amanda Waggott, at the Playground Theatre in Latimer Road, W10, part of the K+C Festival, on 10th August; we’re also appearing at the FT Weekend Festival on 3rd September. We hope, funding permitting, to put on a full-blown production later in the autumn, moving onto a countrywide tour.
Olga is another member of the cast. She comes from Kherson, in the east of Ukraine. Her town was taken over by the Russians very early in the war. She was a drama teacher, ran a poetry festival, had her own publishing house. A pleasant, interesting life. Then, she said: “The Russians just overwhelmed us.” But Russian occupation didn’t stop the violence.
“I saw a boy who was about 14,” she said. “He was just standing at a bus station with his dad. And the Russians shot him. He was only a bit younger than my son. And that was when I thought: I have to leave, to protect my children.”
The cast also includes Alina, Valery and Alexandra, actresses from Ukraine; Julia, a former Ukrainian Eurovision song contest hopeful; Samira, a highly respected Afghan artist, former Afghan Businesswoman of the Year, whose work has been exhibited in the V&A and the Smithsonian and had to leave after receiving a series of death threats; and Essam, a veteran of two previous Trojans projects, and a high-powered Syrian businessman, turned Lanarkshire delivery driver.
We’ve been running TWP since 2013 – first in Jordan, then, from 2016, in the UK, when the Syrian refugee crisis moved to Europe. In the past we’ve put our plays on quite grandly: we’ve toured with the Young Vic (2016), had a Gala Night at the Edinburgh Festival (2019), and frequently get four and five star reviews. We always get standing ovations, and the audience generally is in tears. It’s a combined psycho-social support and awareness-raising project. For the participants, they get to make friends, share experiences, and are given a platform to tell their stories to the world. For the host community, the performances hold up a mirror: they see that the refugees are just people like them, who have survived a catastrophe. This year, we opened the project to Afghans and Ukrainians, as the refugee crisis had expanded from Syria.
Arwa, Alina, Valery and Alex are a solution to one of our major problems: we’re always being asked to tour our play, but it’s hard to tour amateurs. For the last nine years, we’ve always worked with people who weren’t actors, but wanted to make friends and a chance to make sense of their new lives. But amateurs don’t want to go on the road: they have their own lives and families. But with our new core cast, we hope to be able expand our project, tour the UK as we are always being asked to do, run community drama workshops countrywide alongside and bring new participants into the production in every location – although to make that happen, we have to raise a lot of money.
We hope that we are providing a solution for Arwa, Alina, Valery and co as well. Many refugees, once they have reached physical safety, and their children are in schools, find it almost impossible to rebuild their professional lives. Essam is still working as an Uber Eats driver five years after he arrived – a far cry from his previous millionaire life.
“At some point you realise that safety is not enough,” he said.
But for these women, acting is what they do. Arwa, after all, is not the only actress working as a waitress in London but, as she said: “I’m still hoping that Martin Scorsese will come into my restaurant.”
Meanwhile, Arwa has at least been re-united with her dog. She had to walk for weeks, wade rivers, take boats, risk imprisonment and rape at a cost of many thousands of pounds. But Jacko was flown into the UK over a year ago, free, by a charity called War Paws.
Charlotte Eagar is an award-winning foreign correspondent, film-maker and co-founder of the Trojan Women Project .
Trojans UK 22 is at the Playground Theatre, Latimer Road, W10 6RQ, 7.30 10th August.
To find out more about our work or support us, go to: www.trojanwomenproject.org