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Adrian Neblett in Being Here: The Refugee Project.Mark Halliday/Handout

Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal lost their fingers to frostbite trying to find asylum in Canada. The story of the refugees from Ghana crossing the border into Manitoba from the U.S. in deep snow and freezing conditions is told with depth and detail – and from their own perspective – in the play Being Here: The Refugee Project.

“We want people to watch this play because not everybody knows about [the] refugee crisis. Some people think we just came here, we are bad people and why did we come here? Why do we come here as refugees?” Mohammed says. “We want them to know it wasn’t a choice. We were forced to do that.”

The verbatim play has its world premiere this week as an online recording – as opposed to a live performance at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre, which had been the original plan.

The documentary play – meaning all of the dialogue, right down to the ums and uhs, is taken directly from interviews with the people portrayed – examines five groups, telling the stories not just of the refugees who chose Canada, but the Canadians who sponsored them. Things do not always go smoothly, and creator Joel Bernbaum wanted to examine the difficulties that can arise in the sponsor-refugee dynamic.

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Creator Joel Bernbaum wanted to examine the difficulties that can arise in the sponsor-refugee dynamic.Handout

“At the heart of it, this play is about relationships,” Bernbaum says. “It’s about relationships between of course people that have been in Canada for a little while and new Canadians, but also relationships between people in their home countries and the reasons why they left. And some of those relationships are very painful and very challenging.”

The stories are desperate. An Iraqi woman protecting her children from the family of her first husband, who was killed in the war. A Palestinian couple who spent months sleeping on a mattress in a convenience store, while in the United States illegally. Mohammed and Iyal, losing their fingers.

The names have all been changed to protect people’s privacy, but Mohammed and Iyal’s story – told by actors Austin Eckert and Adrian Neblett, wearing black gloves around their hands – is so well known that they are easily identifiable.

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Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal's story – told by actors Austin Eckert and Neblett, wearing black gloves around their hands – is so well known that they are easily identifiable.Mark Halliday/Handout

“We want people to know how refugees are struggling around the world because of human rights, political problems and wars,” says Mohammed, from Winnipeg, where he lives. “That’s what we want people to see. Not to think about the bad things. Because we are not bad people. We are here to help this country and help the communities that we are in to grow.”

Bernbaum travelled across Canada in 2017 and 2018, conducting nearly 200 interviews, from Victoria to Charlottetown.

It’s his third work of verbatim theatre. Home Is A Beautiful Word, which premiered at the Belfry in 2014, looked at the issue of homelessness.

Reasonable Doubt, which premiered at Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon last year (and was co-created with Indigenous artists Yvette Nolan and Lancelot Knight), examined the killing of Colten Boushie and the racism facing the Indigenous community.

Bernbaum points out that for Being Here – and all of his projects – the people he is portraying are the actual writers and speakers.

“Authorship and identity are such important and controversial issues, but that’s where the form of verbatim theatre comes in very usefully. Because I wouldn’t want to tell the story of the two men who crossed the border and lost their fingers in a fictional way,” says Bernbaum, who is white. “I wouldn’t want to tell the story of any of the people – I don’t call them characters. I don’t see myself as the storyteller here. I was the interviewer and the editor.”

One issue – and image – that became central to the script and the production was that of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who died trying to get to Canada. The devastating image of his little body washed up on a beach became an iconic symbol of the crisis, one people could not turn away from.

In Being Here, the photo remains onscreen for so long that the viewer may become uncomfortable. Which is the point. Its presence also signals the importance of that image in Canada’s refugee action and policy.

“Time and time again, people said in the interviews … I acted because of that photo. I acted because I saw that. I acted because of Alan Kurdi,” says Bernbaum, from Saskatoon, where he lives.

One woman he interviewed, who becomes the character Ann in the play, wanted to sponsor a family from Africa – a family that had been languishing in a refugee camp for 13 years – but others in her group said they wanted to sponsor a family of Syrians because of that photo. “It’s fascinating to me, both as an artist and as a human being, what moves the heart,” Bernbaum says.

“Why do we care only when we see certain things?”

When the play could not be performed to a live audience this year because of the pandemic, director Michael Shamata turned it into a filmed production. Bernbaum cut down the script to one act and rehearsals were conducted online.

Bernbaum hopes the play will eventually be produced for live audiences. But he also says the time is right for a play about the plight of refugees – which he fears has become somewhat lost during the pandemic.

“I hope that the play is about making the country that we want. And there’s so much talk about building back better and the pandemic being a great reset, but what does that talk really mean? And how is the talk going to translate into action?” says Bernbaum, who last year was awarded a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholarship. “A hope of mine and a dream of mine is that the play in some small way will catalyze some sort of awareness or action that brings the issue back into the light.”

Being Here: The Refugee Project is streaming from the Belfry Theatre until March 21.

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