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Christine Maria Gamboa, left, and Syrian refugee Ali Tisso meet for the first time in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)
Christine Maria Gamboa, left, and Syrian refugee Ali Tisso meet for the first time in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail)

theatre

Vancouver’s PuSh festival aims to help refugees adapt to Canadian life Add to ...

This week, Christine Marie Gamboa met Ali Tisso. Gamboa, who goes by Tin, is a dancer who moved to Vancouver from the Philippines five years ago. Tisso is a Syrian refugee who has been in the Vancouver area for three months. Later this month, they will take in a show together at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

The two have been matched up by PuSh through the Meet Your New Neighbour program, which pairs “guests” – refugees or vulnerable new Canadians – with “hosts” – locals already familiar with the festival. Hosts pay their own way and PuSh provides tickets (and transit passes) for 50 refugees, thanks to a grant from the Van Tel/Safeway Credit Union Legacy Fund.

“We wanted to do more than just give them a ticket to come and see a show,” Accessible PuSh Co-ordinator Anika Vervecken says. “For them to meet new people is something that can be tremendously helpful … and not just a social worker or a volunteer from some organization, but just some regular Joe Schmo who also happens to be interested in the arts.”

Tisso, 24, is from Aleppo and was nearing the end of his university studies in English literature when the war forced him and his family out of their home in the summer of 2012. They fled to a village about 60 kilometres away. After about two weeks, Tisso left for Turkey, where he worked in sales and completed his degree. He applied for a student visa to come to Canada and sought refugee status shortly after he arrived.

Now awaiting his permanent-residency card, he is on social assistance (he can’t work legally yet), sharing a house with three roommates in New Westminster, outside Vancouver, and studying English at a language school. He is here on his own – his family remains in Turkey and in Syria, in an area under the control of the Islamic State.

Tisso is a self-starter who is already volunteering for a number of arts organizations, including the Arts Club Theatre Company, where he heard about the PuSh program. He has also signed up to volunteer for the festival.

“When I first came here, I knew nobody. I was by myself. I was trying to survive. But after that, I learned that if I volunteer, I may meet some new people here,” says Tisso, who also studied theatre in Turkey. “That’s my main goal in this. I want to meet new people who have the same interests which I have.”

Gamboa graduated from Simon Fraser University last year and is busy with a couple of day jobs (she’s an activity co-ordinator for the Boys and Girls Club and also works at a chocolate store) as well as her dance work; she also sits on the board of a non-profit that funds an orphanage in Zambia. But she remembers what it was like to be new to the city and craving connections.

“When I moved here, it was the first time I realized I had an accent. There were so many little things that you realize that are just different. … It’s something you have to process. And I found [that] a really nice way to process those things while feeling connected to the community was taking dance classes at SFU. I felt like art was a nice way to kind of even everything out – where it didn’t really matter where you were from or what your accent was,” says Gamboa, 23.

“I’ve experienced how art can connect and bring people together. It’s a really great avenue for that.”

Minutes into their first meeting, Gamboa (who decided to skip a dance class so she could stick around) and Tisso were discussing PuSh, dance, films, the particulars of their individual lives and their upcoming night at the theatre.

“It’s been so much work trying to get this done, and to finally see our first people meet is just so amazing,” says Vervecken, who caught up with them as they were chatting over coffee and tea. “It’s like, yes, this is why I [put in] all these long hours.”

The Canada Council for the Arts has also announced an initiative aimed at offering refugees a cultural experience in their new home: The $200,000 program, which begins in April, will subsidize organizations across the country so the groups can offer free admission to refugees to a performance, exhibition or arts event in their communities.

At PuSh, hosts and guests can each request a show, and the festival makes the matches accordingly. Many of the hosts have deferred to their guests. (Some hosts have also offered to pick up the tab for their guests, so it’s possible that more than 50 refugees will be accommodated.) Popular choices have been dance works or other shows that use little or no language.

Tisso, who speaks English well, picked Miss Understood. It is the story of spoken-word artist Antonette Rea, a transgender woman whose journey took her from life as a middle-class husband and father to, at one point, a drug-addicted sex worker in the Downtown Eastside. She is now a poet and activist – and playwright.

“She was a lonely woman,” says Tisso, explaining why he selected this show. “It is very hard to be alone and solve your own problems. … I just felt that this lady, her loneliness is the same as mine. That’s why I find it close to me and my case.

“It’s a journey full of challenges and obstacles,” Tisso adds – speaking about his own life now – “but at last I think that it will be good.”

Three PuSh Picks

  • monumental: After a 10-year hiatus, Vancouver’s The Holy Body Tattoo dance company returns for this collaboration with Canadian postrock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Jan. 28, Queen Elizabeth Theatre
  • An Evening with Roomful of Teeth: The Grammy-winning a cappella group performs works ranging from opera to Appalachian yodelling. Jan. 25-26, Fox Cabaret
  • Leftovers: Author/playwright/comedian Charles Demers gets personal on stage as stand-up meets storytelling. Jan. 26-30, York Theatre
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