In the Spotlight: Syria: The Trojan Women
The Syria Trojan Women (STW) Project has been creating joint therapeutic drama and advocacy projects for Syrian refugees since 2013. We have proudly supported their work from the outset, and are delighted to highlight their work now in celebration of Refugee Week 2017.
Although their initial work focused on Jordan, today STW have expanded their work to benefit refugee communities in the UK and Germany. Two further programmes are planned in Greece.
At its core, Charlotte Eagar, the Project’s Founder says STW’s work is "about giving refugees a voice, and helping them work through their depression and loneliness. You have to give refugees a chance to have an identity. When you lose your home, you can lose your dignity, and you also lose your friends, your family, your community. We give the refugees a place to stand and a new group of friends."
The Programmes in more detail
Syria: The Trojan Women
Syria: The Trojan Women, was first staged in Amman in December 2013, and was the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Queens of Syria”.
Performed by an all-female cast of Syrian refugees, the production skillfully amalgamated the narratives of 50 Syrian refugees into Euripides' anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women. Women participated in two months of therapeutic drama workshops to speak about their experiences of life in exile, and to create a powerful and unique piece of theatre, that has received widespread, international acclaim.
The play’s voices are not those of political commentators or journalists, but of ordinary women whose lives have been turned upside down by the turmoil of the Syrian conflict.
Following rave reviews, international media coverage and sold out performances in Amman, Syria: The Trojan Women went on to tour the UK with the Young Vic, as Queens of Syria, in July 2016. It received a five star review in The Times and played to packed houses and standing ovations all over the UK. The World to Hear, a film documenting the 2016 tour, directed by the award-winning director Charlotte Ginsborg, will be available shortly.
The cast has also been invited to tour the USA and Switzerland.
Oliver! In Arabic
In 2015, following the success of Syria: The Trojan Women, STW worked with Syrian Refugee children as well as underprivileged Jordanian children to produce the world premiere of Oliver! in Arabic. The musical was an updated, Arabic version of Oliver! Lionel Bart's great musical inspired by Charles Dickens' classic novel.
The musical culmination of a seven month music and drama psycho-social support programme for Syrian and Jordanian children, was performed to great acclaim in Amman's Royal Cultural Centre in September 2015, and had a 40 strong junior cast of the children from the workshops. It was directed by the Egyptian actor and human rights activist Khaled Abol Naga.
Following on from this, from January - March 2016, the team ran bilingual music and drama workshops for the children from the cast of Oliver! in Arabic. Children were taught to read music, play the recorder, sing in English, improvise, and to act out scenes from Shakespeare. Classes were run to UK National Curriculum standard, and were overseen by Edwina Issa, former Head of Drama at several prestigious Jordanian schools and the former advisor on Educational Drama to the Jordanian Ministry of Education.
In addition to its theatre projects, STW has developed Audio drama projects which have, to date, been delivered in Jordan, Germany and the UK.
The first of these, We Are All Refugees, was a 6 part pilot audio soap opera about Syrian refugees in Jordan, co-written by a Syrian and Jordanian writing team and supported by the UNHCR. The series highlighted and explored issues facing refugees as well as their Jordanian host community.
The pilot was broadcast on BBC Arabic as well as Syrian radio station, Radio SouriaLi. The serial was subsequently adapted for BBC Radio 4 who broadcast it as a six part radio drama with the title Welcome to Zaatari.
The drama covered themes including forced early marriage, domestic violence, water shortages, unemployment and the tensions between the Syrian and Jordanian communities who are forced to live side by side.
Current and Future Work
STW are currently running two projects.
If Music be the Food of Love is a bilingual programme backed by the World Food Programme, which provides Syrian and Jordanian children with music workshops in Amman. Children have composed their own rap song about being a refugee and are currently recording in Amman.
The second is Kaleidoscope, a UK, Europe and Middle East-based radio drama project, where the team teach Syrian refugees episodic radio drama writing in workshops run by a former editor of The Archers. Refugees work their own stories into 15-minute radio plays which are then recorded in Arabic and the host-nation language. The project is being run currently in Scotland, England and Germany.
Kaleidoscope aims to create a 50-episode radio drama, focusing on one family and spanning the Syrian migrant crisis from the Middle East to Fort William, Scotland. A documentary film is being made about the participants in the project.
As Charlotte Eagar, the programme’s creator says
“The point of the documentaries is that they enormously magnify the advocacy element of the project; our first Syria: The Trojan Women play was only originally seen by about 200 people, but the documentary, Queens of Syria, directed by Yasmin Fedda, was broadcast to millions and won many awards. “
The STW team are seeking to extend the project to Greece.
Participants have given very positive feedback on the current Kaleidoscope project. One participant in Aberdeen who felt lonely, isolated and miserable before participating in the project, said that after sharing food and stories with other Syrian refugees, he felt a weight had been lifted from his shoulders and that he now had new family and friends in Scotland.
An Aberdeen council employee also reported: “Before your workshops, I couldn’t get the Syrians into the same room without fights breaking out. Now there is a completely different energy, and they are setting up their own charity to do projects together.”
Interview: Charlotte Eagar
Charlotte Eagar is Contributing Editor on Newsweek, an award-winning film-maker and foreign correspondent, magazine journalist, novelist and co-founder of the STW
How did you become involved with STW?
My husband William Stirling and I set up The Syria Trojan Women Project four years ago after discussions with Oxfam. Our original project was a production of Euripides’ great anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women in 2013. We ran workshops for seven weeks, culminating in a production of the play in Jordan’s National Centre for Culture and Arts, directed by the award-winning Syrian director Omar Abusaada. The women worked their own stories of exile and loss into the play. We also shot a documentary about the project, Queens of Syria, which won many awards. We raised the £85k needed for this project ourselves.
How did the idea come about?
In June 2013, we had just finished a therapeutic drama project in Nairobi, working with slum children who pack vegetables for all the big supermarkets in the UK. M&S’s Kenyan partner Veg Pro had asked us to make training films with their vegetable packers. We turned the films into a soap opera Nothing’s Gonna Change for Me which was inspired by the Simpsons. We work-shopped the scripts with the vegetable packers – who all live in a slum built round the largest rubbish dump in Africa. We then shot the film, starring the kids, over five days on location. We were amazed by both the transformation in the kids, and by the artistic power of the performances they gave – as they were playing characters very close to themselves, they were extremely convincing. Those films have now been seen by over 750,000 and have been described by VegPro as ‘utterly inspiring’. We understood the power of projects like this.
We then approached Oxfam, who we had worked with in the past, and asked if they would like us to create a combined therapeutic drama and advocacy project. Oxfam said: “We wish you could think of something for our Syrian refugees.”
Willy and I immediately thought of The Trojan Women as it is about refugees and the aftermath of war. Being classicists, we had both studied the play at university. We had also both been to Bosnia during the war – where I was the Observer’s Balkans correspondent. I spend most of that summer of 1992 talking to refugees – I had gone straight from my finals at Oxford to cover the war as a freelancer. In September, I was in my kitchen in Kiev listening to the World Service and they broadcast a production of The Trojan Women. I remember thinking then, but these are the same stories, all over again. Nothing has changed. Death, rape, exile, devastating loss. So we decided that The Trojan Women was a play that Syrians would identify with. And they did. One of the women said, “We are all Hecuba. We were all Queens in our own homes.”
What makes your work special?
The point of the projects are two-fold. Firstly, to work with traumatised, isolated refugees and help them alleviate depression, and secondly to spread the word about the Syrian refugee crisis in a way that makes people sit up and take notice.
The most exciting thing is working with people and seeing them change! They become happy, more self-confident, make new friends, and develop a new understanding of their own skills and capabilities.
We have been working with a lot of the same people for nearly four years, on and off, and the changes are palpable. It’s not just that they make new friends, and feel less depressed as a result of the group workshops; they love the performances and after years of suffering and feeling no one is interested in them, they love the fact that people are now listening to their stories. Most of the refugees who work with us joined because they wanted the world to hear what had happened to them. They wanted to change people’s attitudes.
What has been the most inspiring story you have seen as a result of the work you are doing?
It is generally inspiring to see people who have been incredibly depressed and isolated grow in confidence, make new friends and gain a new sense of self: A new sense of power.
Oliver! in Arabic (the first ever Arabic version of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver!, which we produced) was particularly charming because the main participants were children; we watched them transform, over a six month period, from very nervous, shy children, who were traumatised and often shut off from the outside world, to the stars of Amman, happy, self-confident, hard-working and disciplined. They put on the most amazing performances to packed houses and standing ovations. They looked as professional as if they’d been through years of stage school.
In terms of plays/musicals – have you noticed any favourites amongst the refugees with who you've worked?
The children loved Oliver! The grown ups loved Oliver! for their kids, but for them, The Trojan Women was the best. I think that Kaleidoscope may turn out to be the most powerful of all as it gives the participants so much power – they are writing their own plays. The clearest vehicle for getting the message across, though, is The Trojan Women; probably because Euripides himself wrote the play as an anti-war protest and Euripides was a genius!
What is the biggest challenge for The Trojan Women?
Getting the money. We spend a lot of time fundraising as each project is funded individually and we have no core funding.
We are currently going out to some major institutional donors to fund the Kaleidoscope radio project over two years, so we are very hopeful.
Meanwhile we are forging ahead with the workshops: we’re currently being supported by the UNHCR, Oxfam, Aberdeen and Glasgow Councils and Islamic Relief, amongst others, but the support is often in kind or intermittent.
We’re also approaching foundations to fund the original Syria: The Trojan Women play, in Greece or Germany.
What would £10,000 enable STW to achieve?
£10,000 would nicely plug a gap or two in the Kaleidoscope Project. We have two half-funded projects and £10k would enable us either to complete the funding for our Phase One Kaleidoscope radio drama writing workshops with Syrian refugees in Glasgow, where we are partnered with Glasgow Council, Refugweegees and Islamic Relief; or it would complete the funding for the Phase Two Kaleidoscope workshops in Aberdeen, where we are working with Aberdeen Council.