Mazen, 26 Doncaster
In October 2015, Mazen fled his home in the Sudanese countryside in search of safety and a better life. He travelled alone through Libya, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Italy, and then to France. Mazen made his way to the then ‘Calais Jungle’ to try and seek a path to the UK. Whilst in the Calais jungle, he became involved with a theatre company, Good Chance, who encouraged him to write songs and poems about his experience. Back in Sudan, Mazen had rap battled in Arabic, but performing with Good Chancewas a new, yet positive, experience for him.
Mazen explained that on New Year’s Eve, people from every country who lived in the Calais Jungle were given an hour to perform their spoken word piece. Mazen felt that this brought people together and boosted morale; he described life in the Jungle as usually ‘very hard.’
Mazen met many British volunteers during his time in the Calais Jungle. He describes those from the UK as very welcoming towards him, but that this was sadly not his experience when it came to the reactions towards residents of the Jungle from French citizens. Mazen eventually arrived in the UK in July 2016 in the back of a lorry, somewhere in Kent. On arrival, Mazen sought out the police where he registered himself as someone seeking asylum. After being processed in Calais, Mazen was placed in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, before being sent back to the detention centre. He was then finally placed in Doncaster.
Mazen was supported by Doncaster Conversation Club, a local, volunteer-run charity working in partnership with the local authority, health, G4S, The Red Cross and various support agencies and professionals. Cast Theatre in Doncaster works with Doncaster Conversation Club as part of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation funded Social Seats programme. The Social Seats programme supports ‘vulnerable’ groups across Doncaster to access a wide range of theatre performances, workshops and activities. The volunteer staff at Doncaster Conversation Club value the beneficial affect that attending arts and theatre activities have on the people they support, who have often experienced past trauma, poverty and social isolation. Performances and activities are chosen in consultation with group leaders and service users; together Cast and Doncaster Conversation Club have now organised over 150 attendances at 9 different performances in the first year of the two-year project.
Since September 2017, Mazen has been a regular visitor of Cast, attending performances ranging from classical music with Music in the Round to contemporary musicals such as Spamalot. Mazen told Cast that he ‘always feel very, very welcome at Cast’.
In February 2018, Producer and Creator Jeremy Goldstein approached Cast to find local participants for a performance of ‘Truth to Power’ Café. The performance invited local people to stand up in front of a live audience and respond to the question ‘Who has the power over you, and what would you like to say to them?’. Mazen was supported in his decision to take part; he chose to share a spoken word piece about his time living in the Calais Jungle and his experience of arriving in England, which he described as the ‘land of Hope and Glory’.
Mazen, and six other local people from Doncaster spoke to an audience of around ninety local people. At the time of Truth to Power Cafe, Mazen was waiting for the Home Office to grant his right to remain, and requested that no pictures able to identify him were used for promoting the event in case it damaged his case. Mazen was therefore credited as Anonymous throughout any marketing of the event and the performance itself.
Mazen’s decision to take part in The Truth to Power Café came about because he thought that ‘It’s very hard when you move to a new country to stand up and face problems which have power’ over him.
Mazen, reflected on the impact that taking part in Truth to Power Caféhad on him; ‘I felt nervous, it was a big pressure, I used song and kept it short’.Mazen did not expect the attention that he received as a result of taking part. ‘Since then I’ve become a bit famous; some people call me by name and asked for a picture with me (…) I feel so happy’.Mazen shared the view of the other participants that the event was an incredible experience, well worth the fear of taking part.
Partners who supported Mazen to take part, including Louise O’Brien from Doncaster Minster Literacy project who also took part, reflected; ‘the way that the Truth to Power team worked alongside Mazen was brilliant, allowing him his anonymity and protecting his identity and story. He was on cloud nine after he took part – as was I! – and we both felt like we could do anything. Such rich and valuable experiences are being made to people, it’s a blessing to be involved.’
The audience of Truth to Power Cafécomprised of people seeking asylum from a number of countries including Eritrea, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan who had been supported to attend through the Conversation Club and Social Seats projects, as well as local people from Doncaster. Mazen’s rap highlighted the hardship of traveling to the UK, ‘nothing to eat, no blanket to cover your feet’, and also expressed the everyday humour of coming to live in a strange (and cold) country. Mazen shared the story of not understanding how a pedestrian crossing worked and having a standoff with a driver who was waiting for him to cross as Mazen politely waited for the driver to pass, which audiences reacted to with laughter and a new understanding of how difficult seeking asylum can really be.
Mazen shared that his favourite performance that he has seen at Cast was the west end musical touring production of ‘Spamalot’ which he found ‘really funny’ and laughed throughout.
Whilst studying and learning English at college, Mazen has kept active through volunteering for the local Minster literacy project, Doncaster Conversation Club and the local Red Cross.
In July, Mazen again shared his rap at Cast in an Open Mic Mefil event that formed part of Doncaster Culture week’s programme, to an audience of local people.
When English Touring Theatre came to Cast in October with their production of Othello, Mazen was keen to get involved. He took part in 6 hours’ worth of workshops around the themes explored in Othello. Mazen especially enjoyed workshopping around the story with lead actor Victor Oshin. Mazen stated that ‘the workshop opened my eyes to the literature, it is my cup of tea, I found it interesting and easy to engage with’.
In November, Mazen acted as a volunteer steward for the local arts festival DN Festival of Light, and also sang with a choir of over 100 voices to celebrate the Museum of the Moon launch. Mazen worked alongside a local choir leader to present a song in Arabic at the event which was attended by over 400 local people.
Mazen said that the support that he has received from Doncaster Conversation Club and the Minster literacy project have enabled him to feel welcome and well supported in Doncaster. In November 2018, Mazen was granted the right to remain and has no immediate plans to leave Doncaster, partly owing to feeling so well supported and embedded within the community. Mazen believes that being involved with workshops, arts activities, singing, arts festivals and performances has had a positive impact on his well-being, stating that; ‘you treat people in the best way – they respect your humanity’.
* Photo credit- Sarah Hickson, Truth to Power Café, February 2018