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Knightswood Youth Theatre - Taking Refuge

The night no-one turned up for the weekly drama workshops that would spawn Knightswood Youth Theatre was the night playwright Aileen Ritchie thought it was all over. For the group of high school age African refugees with the threat of dawn raids, internment in Dungavel and deportation hanging over both them, drama workshops weren’t much of a priority. Especially as two young refugees had been stabbed on the street that night, and no-one was letting their children outdoors.

Three years on, and Knightswood Youth Theatre have performed in Holyrood after winning best arts contribution for the Young Scottish Ethnic Minority Award, and received a standing ovation performing at the National Theatre of Scotland’s Exchange youth theatre initiative. More recently, the group have returned from London’s Bloomsbury Theatre, where they won a Philip Lawrence Award for services to their local community. The Philip Lawrence Awards were named in honour of the school-teacher who was killed while protecting a pupil from being attacked in 1995, and were presented, with an irony not lost on the eight young performers who made the trip, by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

“It was like, ooh, nice to meet you. I’m actually shaking your hand,” laughs Zimbabwe-born Caritas Ndige, one of the original members of the group.”

Even before this honour, another member, Congolese-born Marlene Madenge had joined a professional cast in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of 365 at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. For Ritchie, all this is serious vindication for a project that looked, along with some of the company members, like it may not survive.

“When I arrived”, she says, “every single member of the group was under threat of being deported by the Home Office, and you were actively in pursuit of people who had been deported to try and get those people back. The group started off quite small, but when we performed at Exchange, the response we received changed everything. Getting a standing ovation, made everyone feel it was worth something. Especially as the audience were in floods of tears. That gave the group an energy and a dynamism to what they were doing.”

Ritchie’s involvement began while working as a writer in residence with young asylum seekers supported by Glasgow City Council. With a blank canvas to work with, she attended local events in Knightswood, where she noticed that translation duties were undertaken by the teenage sons and daughters of the main speakers.

“I began to wonder what they did in the evenings,” says Ritchie, “and what social outlets they had.”

Ritchie met Euan Girvin, a teacher of English and Additional Languages at Drumchapel High School, where many of the young asylum seekers were enrolled. The seeds of a theatre group were planted, and the project developed under the wing of a charity called LINKES, which Ritchie describes as “a community centre in the sky in the Knightswood/Drumchapel area.” It was here the DA Chics were born. Made up of what Ritchie calls “a cheeky bunch of girls,” who still form the company’s core, it was their sass that kept things going. DA, incidentally, stands for Delicious African.

A twenty-five minute play was developed about the young people’s experiences, which led the NTS to invite the group to perform in Stirling. Given the insecurity and tensions surrounding asylum seekers, this first trip out of town led to potential problems.

“If you’re under threat of being deported,” Ritchie points out, “you don’t want your kids away from the house.”

Today, in the foyer of Drumchapel High, a flat screen TV relays proudly captioned pictures of the awards ceremony for the school’s populace to look up to. The DA Chics greet Ritchie with hugs and laughter.

“They all think they’re stars now,” jokes Girvan in the school canteen.

Beyond the D.A. Chicks, Soham Emmanuel is a Pakistani boy who recently joined the group, and has already acted and written his own play. Now, he says, confidence increasing by the minute, he’d quite like to direct. The DA Chics themselves are even more ebullient.

“We were recognised on a national level for our work,” Ndige says of winning the award. “We were around other young people doing things, and it felt like we were doing something good in a country we’re not from.”

When the group started, “It was something to do after school and have some fun,” Somalian born Fatma Mahfoudh says. “But it helps us identify who we are, and it’s good to explain our stories. Because we are asylum seekers, people didn’t really know what we were about. It gives you confidence as well. I wasn’t confident speaking English, but getting up in front of people and realising they’re listening to you makes you realise you actually can speak the language.”

For Madenge, appearing in 365 wasn’t nearly as traumatic as it could have been.

“It was scary,” she admits, “but I felt prepared because of what I’d already done. I didn’t think I could do it, but then I actually did, because I’d been to drama and was ready. There wasn’t anything I did in 365 that I hadn’t already done.”

The workshops themselves remain highly-charged, emotional affairs. Only the other day, Mahfoudh’s sister was watching her playing a boy detained at Dungavel. Given the close resemblance to the children’s real life experience, the tears tat followed are regular occurrences.

“The children were carrying terrible burdens,” says Girvan. “This was a way of channelling that fear into something else. That was the greatest thing, turning these deep emotional experiences into rich theatrical experiences. The raw material has been intense, but what the children have done with that has been remarkable.”

Karen Chanda, the quietest of the group, is from Zambia, and was herself imprisoned for a time.

“Where I was was really scary,” she says, “and you don’t have your own freedom. But now, when I’m playing with my mates I can do what I like.”

Mahfoudh points out that “When we actually do the plays, you forget you’re in the same situation. You just become the character. In my play the mum and the daughter were being deported, and I knew the situation and would be a bit upset, but when I’m doing the show, I’m someone else.”

Ndige concurs.

“It’s a way of getting away from my life,” she says, “and becoming someone different. Suddenly we are not asylum seekers, but we can become pop stars.”

Tonight, the DA Chics will be taking part in Windows On Our Lives, a group of short plays performed at Knightswood Congregational Church. In the real world, all but two of the group have been given leave to stay in this country by the Home Office. University applications are on the cards, fired by a sense of purpose, self-worth and, especially among the DA Chics, a joy that makes them unrecognisable from any other teenagers. Funding for the group, however, remains perilously low.

As Drumchapel High’s Head Teacher May Winton understands, “There’s an emotional intelligence that’s developed in the group. That’s hard enough when you’re growing up in your own culture, but when you’re not from here and have all these added pressures, it’s remarkable.”

Mahfoudh puts it even better.

“It improves your confidence,” she says, “and how you work as a team. We have to listen to each other, so if we go into a work situation that isn’t drama, you can use that anywhere. It makes you ready for the outside world.”

Knightswood Youth Theatre perform Windows On Our Lives at Knightswood Parish Church, tonight, 7.30pm

The Herald, December 16th 2008

ends

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