Summer theatre program challenges negative stereotypes surrounding Syrian refugees

Sawa Theatre aims to connect young Syrian refugees with local theatre community

Participants take the stage at the Gas Station Arts Centre, rehearsing for their final performance, September 8 and 9.

Sawa Theatre is a summer theatre program that aims to “foster creativity, promote personal growth, and encourage solidarity” between new and local Canadians in Winnipeg.

Sawa – which means “together” in Arabic – was co-founded by U of M students and local theatre artists in April 2016. With a shared vision for theatre as a platform for social change, the program’s founders have set the theatre apart from other theatre programs offered in the city, as Sawa was specifically created to serve Syrian refugees.

Run in English and Arabic, Sawa is a “ community ambition” that hopes to provide a safe space for young Syrian refugees to express themselves freely and enhance their English language skills through interactive workshop s and rehearsal sessions. Overcoming the language barrier is among the greatest challenges facing many Syrian refugees.

Through a series of workshops, participants are provided the opportunity to learn useful skills – from communication to team building. During the workshops and content creation sessions participants, alongside a playwright, develop a script based on their collective ideas, personalities, and creativity. Once a script is put together and translated into Arabic, rehearsals are held at the Gas Station Arts Centre.

Sawa Theatre’s artistic director, Al-Montaser Al-Jajeh, spoke on the program’s aim to challenge and debunk some of the existing negative stereotypes surrounding Syrian refugees.

“We are trying to break the negative stigma attached to the image of a refugee, the image of a refugee stuck in a tent,” Al-Jajeh said.

He added that this image of a refugee is accompanied with overwhelming “feelings of pity and misery.”

Al-Jajeh explained that Sawa aims to represent newcomers in a new light, one that shows that much like Sawa’s audience, the actors on stage “are normal people who can make people laugh through their art. ”

Further, Sawa Theatre’s participants hope to show that refugees are not a burden on the system, but are rather productive community members that have a lot to offer.

Speaking on what Sawa means to him, Al-Jajeh said “I cannot put into words what Sawa is for me. Sawa is family to me.”

Diversity and the role of theatre

Gislina Patterson is the artistic associate who links Sawa to the local theatre community. She focuses on promoting diversity within the theatre community in Winnipeg.

“Different voices bring different perspectives and experiences, which makes theatre more powerful and truthful,” Patterson said.

“The contribution of Sawa is a huge gift to the theatre community of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Canada.”

Patterson explained that the participants’ whole-hearted contribution makes theatre more authentic. It also focuses on bringing the theatre community and the participants together by making theatre interesting for the participants, the families of participants and the broader arts and culture community.

Patterson pointed out that there has been an increased effort to create arts funding programs that promote diversity in theatre.

“The funding asks to focus on the stories of newcomers, ” she said.

“When theatre companies choose to focus on personal stories of newcomers, they are producing the art for Eurocentric audiences to give them a very basic introduction of the newcomers and their struggles.”

Sawa Theatre has committed to steering away from creating performances solely based on personal stories and struggles. This aligns with the program’s goal to break common stereotypes that limit the identities of refugees to their struggles alone.

Gislina Patterson hosted content creation sessions to incorporate participants’ ideas, personalities and creativity into the script.

Sawa Theatre’s 2016 production was titled Junun, Arabic for ”madness.” The production was based on the participants’ wish to stage a group therapy session in a psychiatric ward.

“The script development process was very organic last year,” Patterson said. “The script evolved depending on what the participants wanted to do, were willing to do and determine what our capabilities were.”

This gives the participants an opportunity to create a “new piece of theatre that can become a part of the fabric of arts and culture in Winnipeg,” she said.

This year, Sawa Theatre is producing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland titled Alice in the Land of Wonders, an Arabic translation.

The theme of the production is “less realist and more magical,” allowing the participants to experiment with different artistic styles within the play.

“My aim was to use the ideas, scenes and the aesthetics as jumping off points for the play.” Patterson said, adding that some participants wanted to be brand new characters and play very specific roles. The adaptation will feature a mix between classic and original characters.

Commenting on the personal growth of the youth who participated last year, Patterson said “they have definitely grown as artists as compared to last year, as the participants are more grounded and focused than last year.”

Participant testimonials

Ghadir Alnajar is a 15-year-old high school student who arrived to Winnipeg eight months ago. She said she likes her new home very much.

“I like the nature and how respectful and friendly people are, ” Alnajar said.

“It was a challenge to learn a new language, make new friends and learn about the culture but Sawa has helped me a lot,” she added.

Alnajar is one of the participants who plays a lead character in Alice in the Land of Wonders. Reflecting on her role in the play, she said, “the most special thing about my character in the play is that my sister in real life plays my sister in the play.”

Theatre is an integral part of Syrian culture and Aljanar mentioned that it is important to showcase it.

“Some people think that women in hijab cannot sing, act, or dance ,” she said. “This is wrong. Through Sawa we are showing the exact opposite.”

Ibraheem Sarhan, also 15, left Syria roughly three years ago to escape the civil war. Sarhan left to seek medical attention in Jordan, where he was involved in a few theatre productions working alongside prominent Syrian directors.

“I got involved in Sawa as I wanted to get involved within my community and I like acting,” he said. “Sawa is integral in building the Syrian community [in Winnipeg] along with learning life skills that help build our future here in Canada.”


Poster created by Jadyn Klassen.

Alice in the Land of Wonders will be staged at Gas Station Arts Centre, located at 445 River Avenue, on Sept. 8 and 9 starting at 7 p.m.