ESI Community News talked to International Class alumna Elena Boukouvala and her colleagues Shamshaid J. from Pakistan (now in Paris) and Ebrahim E. from Syria (now in Greece).
Elena, Sham and Ebrahim and about 30 other colleagues have been active in leading and organizing the Creating Communities Without Borders event, Saturday, March 4, which will bring together performance activists in 15 cities and 13 countries via livestream to share their performances and fundraising resources in support of Play is Hope and its grassroots collaborations with other local organizers around the world. The fundraiser will also support the Pipka open refugee camp and the Mosaic Center in Lesvos, Greece. Elena, Ebrahim and Sham talked about how they first met and the pain and joy of the refugee experience and working to build community in a strange land:
Elena: I was very inspired by the people I met in the refugee camps, and their activity to keep creating their lives after escaping their homelands by boat. A big question in working with displaced men, women and families was: What does it mean to help? How can we grow together in adversity?
The people I met needed help, and some were powerful community organizers, and they were also giving tremendously through their struggles. We are learning together without knowing how to build grassroots networks of support across borders. We are growing together as performers and organizers.
Sham: I came from Pakistan, then traveled to Iran, then Turkey, then Lesvos, Greece, and finally to Paris, where I’m living now. When I first met Elena, I was deeply upset about the Greek asylum process. Elena heard my story. I came to realize that it’s not only me who was facing the problems of being a refugee. My understanding of ‘refugee’ kept developing. They’re not who we’ve been told they are from news reports: “bad,” “stupid,” “terrorists.” After meeting many people I saw how the reality is different. They are all innocents. Simple people. Many had some education and a shared sense of humanity. Many face horrific problems.
From Pakistan to Iran, to Turkey, to Greece, to France, I found humanity — even if at times it was like finding stars in the sky in broad daylight!
I was inspired by Elena — in terms of learning to work hard and staying positive. I would ask myself, why am I complaining? I was inspired to not lose hope and to try, try again. In my travels, I found some really good people. I found humanity. Even if there were times that finding humanity was like finding stars in the sky in the daylight!
Ebrahim: I came from Syria to Turkey and then to Thessaloniki, Greece, where I met Elena. She asked me what I needed.
In Syria, I had been finishing my degree in English literature. I had been working with the Red Cross, but escaped my country when they tried to conscript me into military service. It was a hard life in Turkey. The borders were closed to Syrians. Then in Greece, I took part in a re-education program. I’m hoping to build a better life here, and maybe someday go home.
There are 300 refugees in the camps here. I have met many and now have many friends. I volunteer by helping with translations. Creating community across borders, we are becoming a team, and together maybe we will find a solution. I want to grow together as what we’re creating grows. Maybe we’ll build an organization. We may have borders — but we also have people who care about others.
I am so rich from having the experience of being a refugee and meeting so many people from different cultures…I have something that others in Pakistan have never known.
Sham: Maybe I’d be content one day return to Pakistan. I am so rich from having the experience of being a refugee and meeting so many people from different cultures. I have something that others in Pakistan have never known. I’m happy with my life right now, because I have so many friends.
Our fundraising [on March 4] is not out of neediness, but a positive development, because we’re building community. It’s an investment in our community. We want to invite others to give and to build with us.
Elena: I hear from both of you today things I have not heard before. Janet is helping us create how to talk about our work together. It’s powerful for us to discover new ways to talk and to create new ways to be with one another.
We’re creating what it means to be human — alive, useful and full of love for humanity.
Sham: We’re creating what it means to be human: alive, useful and full of love for humanity. Since I arrived in Europe, I have met many such humans.
Elena: It has changed my life to get to know Sham and Ebrahim and many of our collaborators. We are reclaiming our humanness through improvising in contexts that are often dehumanizing. I think we’re creating something beyond right and wrong — something new. It’s fueled by the passion and commitment to keep on creating our lives and treat any challenge as an offer to grow. We’re inviting people to bring their talents and experiences to make something new with us.
I want also to thank the Institute for the support and ongoing supervision I’ve received while working in camps and communities across Europe. Ebrahim and Sham have also been inspired and supported by participating in the Institute’s online courses during this unstable, transitional moment in their lives, and they also impacted international groups with their presence and growth. Join us on the 4th of March! Let’s perform the world together across borders.