In October 2015, I was performing the part of Golde in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway just as the Syrian-refugee crisis hit its American-media peak. For those of you who don’t know, Fiddler on the Roof is, at its core, about refugees: It’s the story of a Jewish man and his five daughters in 1905 Russia who are about to be thrown out of their village by the Tsar’s edict because of their religion. I felt the resonance of the story we were performing as I looked at the haunting images of dead children and desperate families fleeing their homes. I gave myself the task of putting on a weekly bake sale backstage to raise money. By the end of my year in Fiddler, we’d collected about $30,000.
I didn’t want to cluelessly give that money to organizations that weren’t assisting refugees directly. I found an article called “How to Help Syrian Refugees? These Groups You May Not Know Are Doing Important Work.” This inspired piece made me want to get involved on a more intimate level. It described civilians who responded to the crisis with a variety of backgrounds not immediately associated with aid work. I was also struck by a story about a Hamlet production that toured nearly every country in the world and performed at five refugee camps. By the time I had finished playing Golde, I decided to try to mount a production of a classic play at a refugee camp.
The idea that people in difficult circumstances might benefit from performing is not an original notion. A cousin who survived the Holocaust recalled a production he did of The Gold Diggers while awaiting entry to Israel at a displaced-persons camp in Munich. I shared the seeds of my project with an actor friend who is also a brilliant activist. He connected me with I AM YOU, and that’s when I started to plan.
I AM YOU is an NGO working to make the lives of displaced people at Syrian-refugee camps better through education. My very first professional job in the theater was with the company Theatre for a New Audience, doing Shakespeare workshops and abridged productions for New York City schoolkids and their teachers. I pitched the basic idea of performing at a camp to Katina Saoulli, executive director of I AM YOU, and we were on our way … to Greece. Katina loved the idea but said it could not happen unless we took a good look at the conditions in Ritsona, a refugee camp near Athens, first.
Shakespeare is tough. Even the most erudite actors can have a hard time deciphering the meaning of every line. That said, the stories he told were beyond. Take, for example, The Tempest: There’s a beloved guy who happens to rank quite high in the government. He spoke out against corruption and was thrown into the sea with his three-year-old daughter to die in a “rotten carcass of a butt [a boat].” Instead, he landed on an island and remained there for twelve years, tamed the wilds of this island with a bit of magic and a lot of compassion, and finally found redemption in the form of family.
We told this story to some boys at the Ritsona camp when we were there in December. Hamza, one of the boys, had offered to translate from English to Arabic. He’d come to Ritsona two years earlier. His father, a blacklisted scholar of some note, had fled to Germany. Hamza and his brother Mustafa waited for reunification with their dad. They wrote passionate articles to the world on their arrival and read to us from their journal: