To be honest, I've been pretty emotional all this week - my thriller CARGO (about refugees travelling to Europe in the back of a cargo container) just opened at the Arcola Theatre until the 6th August - and I've also been watching my friends Hassan and Ahmad on #Exodus - Our Journey to Europe on BBC2.
|With Hassan, Ahmad, & Libby Freeman of Calais Action|
I first met Hassan and Ahmad last November when we went to the House of Lords to talk to sympathetic peers about the refugee crisis. Outside in Parliament Square the protest against the recent Syria bombing vote was kicking off, and people were shouting, chanting and waving flags. The Syrians looked in amazement at the people demonstrating, and the police standing around placidly. "This would never happen back home," they said. "Going on a protest in Syria is a suicide mission."
I first wrote CARGO three years ago when I was sick of Europe's unwillingness to deal with the refugee crisis. Once I got involved with the real-life volunteer effort via Calais Action, I met many of those who had made the journey themselves, I found the nitty-gritty both horrifying and fascinating. What to eat (Snickers bars) how to go to the toilet (in a bag), what to bring (a phone, battery pack and charger). Phones are a lifeline, sometimes even above food and water; they have been used to call for help from a sinking rubber dinghy half way between Turkey and Greece, to WhatsApp a missing friend, or to text for help from the back of an airtight lorry.
|In Calais Action's first container for Samos, October 2015|
During my volunteer work with Calais Action, I organised many forty-foot shipping containers packed full of aid for the Greek Islands and often, while we were loading up, I couldn’t imagine how desperate I would have to feel to risk my life inside one of these huge metal monsters, often airtight, packed with goods and sometimes pitch dark; strapped onto articulated lorries or heaped on the decks of giant ships.
I suddenly realised that the whole piece could be set in a cargo container, with actors and audience combined in the near dark. What’s really missing from the political discourse on refugees is empathy; it’s still very much them and us. Theatre can help inspire empathy and CARGO is a closed-space, closed-time piece that mirrors the crossing of a border, to give an immediate and immersive experience of how it is to risk your life for a better one.
|CARGO production shot|
After spending a lot of time in Calais, I quickly understood the ongoing exhaustion and tension, the lack of sleep, the jitteriness, the negotiations with smugglers, the trying and failing, the hunger, the uncertainty, the necessity of putting your trust in strangers, or even worse, not knowing who you can trust. By chatting to people in camp, I learned how you book an appointment with a smuggler, how to avoid being fingerprinted, and about the smugglers’ escrow offices in Turkey, whereby those travelling to Greece by dinghy text a code once they arrive safely to allow their money to be released.
Last month, I took the cast of CARGO to the Calais camp to prepare for rehearsals. We met a group of Eritrean men and women in their tiny communal tent: one woman had recently miscarried after being pushed by French police during a failed attempt on the lorries, the others were exhausted from night after night spent trying their luck. Despite this they served us fruit tea and biscuits and made us welcome.
|The cast of CARGO in Calais, June 2016|
Before we leave, Mo, a gentle-faced Iraqi with quiet and considered English, takes us to one of the restaurants in camp and shows us around the church and the school there.
“How many times have you tried the jump?” we ask him.
Mo shrugs. “Nineteen times.”
“Nineteen?” we ask, horrified.
“Some people, they try over a hundred times. Every night.” Mo smiles sadly. “One day, I get lucky.”
CARGO is on at the Arcola Theatre from the 6th July to the 6th August 2015 – book tickets here: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/cargo/2016-07-06/
CARGO tours to Oxford, Bristol, Cardiff, Southend and Salisbury in September.
(A version of this article appeared in Exeunt Magazine in July 2015).