Sharing our stories: Striving to empower young refugees through theatre

9 January 2023

by Pete Harris Lindop

For three days at the end of November, I had the incredible fortune to collaborate with ISTA and Amala Education, an organisation that works exclusively with refugee youth to enable them to return to high school after displacement. Approximately 800,000 of Jordan’s 11 million population are refugees, with 46% under 17 years of age. Amala has developed the first international High School Diploma for young people who are displaced, and is currently working with the Conference of International Schools for accreditation.

I collaborated with 17 inspiring, courageous, tenacious and playful students from Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Palestine, aged 16-25, as well as teachers from Ghana, Mumbai, Beirut, Addis Ababa and Geneva. I had been drawn to this experience as a way of enriching my creative engagement with young people, of fulfilling my desire to hear stories from worlds beyond my own, and above all, of exploring how the tools of the theatre can be used to articulate stories that need to be heard.

We set a number of key questions as our starting point:

What are the moments of change in my life?

How did they transform me?

Who was I then and who am I now?

Led by an exceptional team from ISTA, we worked through a series of creative theatrical exercises and performance tasks, as these displaced young people explored what they wanted to share from their lives, and how they wanted to use body, voice and space to do so. They worked as storytellers, as artists and as collaborators. Some wanted to communicate the details of the many ordeals they had faced, but many simply wanted to express their shared sense of humanity. We heard and saw stories of chaos, destruction and war, of growth, and of triumph over adversity.

As we worked, it became profoundly evident that these students did not need ‘teaching’ but instead, needed agency, needed creative stimulus and above all, needed us to listen to them. Our unspoken mantra was: Living human beings – Do not block currents of creative energy! The relationship between teacher and student was turned upside-down as we sought to make sense of who they were, why we were there, what they needed and how to enable an authentic exchange of what it means to be human – the major preoccupation of all those involved in the craft of theatre-making. Their intense joy at connecting with us, their love of creative play and above all, their infectious, open optimism despite the unimaginable challenges strewn across their lives, was palpable at every moment. We were humbled, inspired, deeply moved and transformed.

As I flew back, I tried to make sense of what had just happened… How can I continue to use theatre to free the essential stories that lie inside the minds and bodies of our students? What have these refugees taught me about our need for connection with others? And how might we, as a Foundation, use exchanges like these to fulfil our mission? This encounter demands that we all remember our fundamental need for meaningful connection with others, through the sharing of authentic stories that articulate our essential humanity.

Note: I would like to thank our principal at the International School of Geneva, La Châtaigneraie, Soraya Sayed Hassan, for unequivocally supporting this development opportunity.