They lost everything. But they’re finding hope on stage
Enraged, seething, Ismail Zafari yells at the young girl weeping before him: “If you go outside, I will break your leg. The suitor is on the way, they phoned me a few minutes ago.”
A harrowing scene — and just another day on stage for Ismail, as part of Parastoo Theatre.
But, the line between theatre and reality is sometimes a fine one.
Ismail hails from Afghanistan, where scenes of abuse like what he performs are a reality for many, and extremism and terror have ordinary citizens in its grip.
And it is Ismail’s flight from this reality that brought him to Malaysia seeking refuge, and eventually onto the stage.
As a member of refugee theatre group Parastoo, Ismail performs to expose the world to the realities in his homeland, and to connect with a society he is otherwise excluded, due to his refugee status.
Theatre also acts as a form of release and escape, allowing him and other refugees to voice their fears and frustrations, instead of struggling silently.
Unable to earn a living and impossible to return home, Ismail has despaired to the point of wanting to kill himself. “No one wants to leave his or her country,” he says. “We started with nothing, we didn’t have anything. We even borrowed clothes and shoes.”
As of March 2018, there were more than 155,000 (155,880) refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency in Malaysia.
Among them, nearly 1,400 Afghans, while the rest are from Myanmar, Pakistan and Syria, among other countries.
Malaysia does not grant refugees protection and legal rights. As such, they cannot work legally, or access public services, such as government schools, leaving them with few avenues to improve their desperate circumstances.
Most hope to be legally resettled in other countries, but the wait can span years.
Living under such circumstances drove Saleh Sepas to start Parastoo.
A writer from Afghanistan in theatre, radio and television - including a drama that aired on BBC Radio - Saleh had advocated for women’s rights.
This drew the ire of the extremist Taliban movement, which issued him death threats, and in 2016, desperate to protect his family, Saleh fled with his wife and three kids to Malaysia.
They are among thousands of refugees in the country, who are stuck in a limbo that has chipped away at their hopes, aspirations and self-worth.
“These are the difficulties, experienced by refugees every day and every moment,” he says. “It causes depression and a lack of self-confidence. They lose their sense of importance and capability.”
So Saleh started Parastoo and recruited amateur actors from the refugee community. He wanted to stage plays for the public, which would end with Q&A sessions to promote dialogue between Malaysians and refugees.
He had no money for props, venue rental or other expenses, but persevered, eventually garnering funds from crowdfunding initiatives. The group has been performing since 2017, and has shows lined up for 2018.
The hope is to engage society through these performances. “We can highlight the problems of our people...And we want to create a new belief towards immigrants, that (we) can also do good.”
Since joining Parastoo, Ismail has felt a spark of hope. “Theatre freed me from psychological pressures, it helped me,” he says. “Because we can connect with different people.”
He adds, “Through theatre, we can draw attention to the situation in Afghanistan...and I’m very happy I can play a small role here, and I can, and will do it well, to the end.”
Support Parastoo Theatre by watching their performances, and learn more about the refugee situation in Malaysia.