BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Humanitarian adversity demands innovative responses, yet the arts are often overlooked as instruments of change despite known health benefits. Creative projects can be “life-changing and even life-saving” for refugees, according to a recent report by Counterpoint Arts. Enter Seenaryo, a charity operating in Jordan and Lebanon that uses theater to empower refugee women and other underserved groups to activate social change.
Jordan and Lebanon have among the highest numbers of refugees per capita worldwide, hosting over 760,000 and 1.5 million respectively. Lebanon’s dire economic collapse has left 80% of the population below the poverty line, and the country is still reeling from the 2020 Beirut blast. The crisis has damaged public services and increased community tensions. Meanwhile, Jordan’s economic downturn has been exacerbated by COVID-19, with an estimated 50% youth unemployment. In the face of crisis, Seenaryo commits to using participatory theater as a vehicle for transformation for underserved women, youth and children.
“Tilka” is the fitting title of the charity’s latest documentary, which premiered at the Cambridge Film Festival in October. The Arabic word, تلك, translates as a feminine form of “those,” referring to the marginalized women that Seenaryo seeks to empower.
The film contrasts the bleak situation of life in Lebanon during 2021, in the midst of a pandemic and severe economic crisis, with the dynamic creativity of a women’s artist residency in the mountains outside Beirut. The women on screen recall painful experiences of separation from their families and homelands, transforming them into displays of hope and humanity through performing arts.
The resilience and joy witnessed on stage extend beyond the curtain falling. Participants in Seenaryo’s theater programs not only learn to act but to lead, teach and heal within their communities. In 2022, the charity trained 95 youth and women in theater leadership, providing much-needed professional opportunities, particularly for women whose labor participation is low in both countries (less than 15% in Jordan and 23% in Lebanon). The Borgen Project interviewed Namarig Yacoub, a Sudanese refugee living in Jordan, who describes how Seenaryo changed her life, and Victoria Lupton, the charity’s CEO and co-founder.
Namarig, 31, once felt hopeless due to a lack of opportunity in Jordan. Before leaving Sudan, she aspired to be a doctor, but the Jordan Compact, which provides Syrians with work permits, does not extend to refugees from other countries. Furthermore, many Sudanese refugees face racial discrimination.
She said: “Before Seenaryo, I was full of regret because of the war. I had to leave my medical studies early and couldn’t continue them in Jordan to become a doctor here. Then, after joining Seenaryo, I realized that I wanted to help people through theater.”
Her journey with Seenaryo began with a production titled “House of Hope.” Through this initiative, refugee women created an original piece of theater, in which Namarig was both an actress and assistant director. The responsibility of directing gave her the skills and confidence to become a community leader, teaching in a Sudanese Quranic group.
In 2021, she participated in another production titled “Between Flock and Fantasy,” with diverse refugee youth. The play revolved around dreams, referring both to dreams at night and personal aspirations. One woman shared a nightmare wherein her oppressive ex-husband was trying to take her son away from her, and she dreamed of being safe from him. Another youth dreamed of being a bird, with symbolic resonances of escape from the refugee situation in Jordan.
Meeting other refugees and discussing their challenges and hopes had a powerful impact on Namarig. After the project, she realized there were more opportunities available to her than she had previously imagined. Namarig trained for leadership positions within Seenaryo. She also began to volunteer to help other marginalized groups and ventured into the beauty field, providing services including hairstyling.
She emphasized that the voices of Sudanese, Somalian and Yemeni refugee women often go unheard in Jordan, where they face discrimination. The projects gave them visibility and a chance to express themselves. Namarig said she resonated with an Arabic expression that likens theater to a drug, as she felt herself “flying” during her experiences, with newfound confidence in her abilities.
Imagining New Worlds
Victoria Lupton, Seenaryo’s CEO, spoke of a “dual change” that the theater projects enact on participants and audiences. With several productions touring nationally and internationally, the charity is able to reach many. A “profound, seismic transformation”, she said, occurs within women and children participants, who often go from being “incredibly timid” to “telling their stories and speaking out about injustice.”
This impact extends to their audiences, as half-hour dialogue sessions are conducted after productions. As well as discussing the content of the plays, these interactions are instrumental in breaking stereotypes about participants, whose voices are underrepresented in society.
Furthermore, some projects are geared towards peace-building and conflict transformation, where tensions between communities are approached through creative collaboration. Victoria described a project involving groups of Palestinian and Lebanese children, for example. Many initially had fears and preconceptions about each other, yet through theater they established profound, long-lasting relationships.
While disagreements between people and communities may remain, Victoria emphasized the power of establishing dialogue and “nonviolent communication” through theater-based tools. Amidst adversity, crisis and war, this approach seems vital for encouraging collaboration to unlock better futures, with marginalized voices emerging as leaders of change.
The mission to create spaces for “imagining new worlds” and promoting “radical joy” has powerful implications. With thousands reached yearly, whether as participants or audience members, Seenaryo’s theater programs allow those affected by crisis and conflict to experience transformed realities through creative expression. Displaced individuals discover joyful connection and community, and those whose voices typically go unheard can impress their humanity upon thousands. Through its programs, Seenaryo empowers refugee women with tools to become artists and leaders, paving brighter futures and cultivating hope amidst adversity.
– Anum Mahmood