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On stage and in life, asylum seekers' voices heard in fight for justice

  • Date: 19 January 2011
  • Area: North
Photo depicting female performer in traditional African dress

How I Became An Asylum Seeker by Lydia Besong. Credit: Shaheda Choudury

A play based on its author's experience fleeing persecution and trying to gain asylum in the UK has been performed by asylum seekers in Manchester, Liverpool and London against a background of the playwright's own ongoing fight against deportation.

How I Became An Asylum Seeker, the powerful story of a woman who flees persecution and is refused refuge in the UK was written by Lydia Besong and realised with support from Manchester-based arts development organisation Community Arts North West.

Besong and her husband came to the UK from Cameroon in 2006 following persecution stemming from their work with the Southern Cameroon National Council, which campaigns for the rights of the English-speaking minority.

They claimed asylum but found the process immensely frustrating. Depressed and struggling Besong found out about the Manchester branch of Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST), a national support and campaigning organisation founded and run by women asylum seekers of different nationalities.

Besong, who had been an English teacher in Cameroon, was inspired by her initial contact with WAST to begin writing a play based on her own experiences. Early scenes from the play, the first Besong had written, were rehearsed by members of the group on their own, and then with support from Community Arts North West (CAN).

The work of Community Arts North West focuses on creating access to cultural productions for people that are excluded from or on the fringe of mainstream resources. Their participatory arts programmes help to create a voice, expression and visibility for the many complex and diverse communities that make up Greater Manchester.

How I Became an Asylum Seeker was supported by CAN' s Exodus Refugee Arts Programme and produced by their lead Artistic Manager Yasmin Yaqub in partnership with WAST. CAN's wide role in bringing the work to stage involved organising workshops and rehearsals, bringing in professional arts support and making connections with mainstream venues. CAN also provided financial support, mainly around childcare support, transport and food, as asylum seekers are not allowed to earn money.

While the play progressed, Besong's own situation worsened. Her claim for asylum was refused and she was denied the right to work, a home or claim any state benefit.

In December 2009, a week after How I Became An Asylum Seeker was first performed by members of Manchester WAST at the Zion Arts Centre, Manchester, Besong was taken into detention and held for a month at Yarl's Wood. Within days CAN was approached by BBC North West who featured Lydia Besong's story in their evening news slot.

In November 2010 the play received its London premiere at Riverside Studios with a cast again made up of Manchester WAST asylum seeker women, shortly after Besong's fresh claim for asylum was refused.  The event was hosted by the actor Juliet Stevenson and received a standing ovation.

On 8 December 2010 Lydia Besong was given the right to appeal and her case is ongoing.

Lydia Besong said: 'Writing and acting a play is a good way of raising awareness, the impact of drama and theatre in the society. I was full of emotions but still I had to carry on writing. Inspired by the strength of these women and also taking advantage of the freedom of expression and association in UK, which is what most of us don't have in our home countries.'

Cilla Baynes, Creative Director, Community Arts North West said: 'Just because the women are asylum seekers does not mean that they do not have the same needs in terms of their creative expression as any one else in the UK. And this is CAN's expertise: how to help people create and produce a piece of work in their very differing contexts which will also stand up not just because of its subject matter but because of its artistic merit and ability to communicate to an audience. This work can not happen without this kind of dedicated support.'

Cilla continued: 'There is a certain kind of power in live performance work...in terms of communicating ideas and stories. The way we make connections as human beings is through personal stories, about people, not the Sudanese or the Rwandans. It is about a particular Rwandan story or a Sudanese story. Individual personal stories help us to make connections and to change our consciousness. Theatre has a very particular place in the Exodus work that is really important and potentially very powerful.'

For more information about Community Arts North West visit: www.can.uk.com

For more information about Women Asylum Seekers Together visit: www.wast.org.uk