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Asylum seekers' chronicles on stage

This month, established and emerging Australian playwrights presented a showcase of diverse plays exploring the tension that surrounds the idea of seeking asylum.

Across twelve nights, Asylum, a series by Apocalypse Theatre Company at the Old 505 Theatre aimed to raise funds and awareness for refugees, with artists donating ticket sales to the Asylum Seekers Centre (Newtown) and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (Melbourne). 

“I had a moral question when writing the script - how do I do these stories justice as a white woman in a fairly good society?”

– Melita Rowston, writer of 'Bread and Butter'.

Founder, director and producer, Dino Dimitriadis, said, “We tried to find stories that were quite localised and personal to strike at the universal.”

“Buzz words like ‘queue jumper’” were taken out, he said, and works attempted to raise “the quality of the conversation around it.”

An example of this is the play, Self-service, by Mary Rachel Brown, which focused on the story of an Australian woman who trained refugee workers at a supermarket. 

“This work positions the idea that racism is more entrenched in Australian society than we think.” Dimitriadis said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate for recent migrants is 7% compared with 5.4% for people born in Australia - and 4 in 10 migrants usually spend up to three months looking for their first job. 

Despite these disappointing statistics, there are initiatives aimed at providing employment assistance and cultural integration for recently arrived refugees. 

Helping refugees is their 'Bread and Butter'

The Bread and Butter Project in Marrickville is an initiative of the Bourke Street Bakery which provides refugees with TAFE traineeships and an understanding of Australian workplace standards and culture.

It was this social enterprise that inspired writer Melita Rowston to write the play Bread and Butter, which she says is based on her desire to showcase a tale of hope. 

Despite completing rigorous research before writing the script, Rowston admitted that without experience and the ability to interview refugees first hand she felt ill-equipped. 

“I had a moral question when writing the script - how do I do these stories justice as a white woman in a fairly good society?” she said.

The solution to her dilemma meant delving deeper into the story of an Afghani female apprentice.

“We all say the personal is political - so writing for a woman was my way in,” she said.

“Women’s stories are incredibly underrepresented and I was inspired by the resilience of women from these war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq who are brought up in a world of trauma.” Rowston said.

An excerpt from the play illustrates the sense of belonging and identity that the program creates.

“When I was offered the traineeship at the bakery, I was nervous. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I couldn’t sleep or concentrate. But there was no longer fear in my heart. My desire to be Australian was stronger.

 "Isobel patiently taught me how to make the Australian bread. We used our hands to communicate instead of words. I will never forget the day we pulled my first tray of baguettes out of the oven. My smile was so big my face hurt! Isobel believed in me. She looked at me with respect. That day I decided Isobel was my new family."

Peace of mind is still a luxury for many Australian refugees waiting to be granted permanent visas. In December last year, in a bid to process and offer protection to the thousands of refugees in limbo, the Federal Government passed legislation to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) with work rights.

The conditions of a TPV require refugees in Australia to reapply for this visa every three years and they may still be sent home if conditions in their country of origin are considered stable.

This anxiety is articulated in Bread and Butter: 

“US forces are leaving Kabul. So for some reason, this government has decided that Kabul must be safe. They are sending Hazara Asylum Seekers back. Those footsteps, the postman’s, are the footsteps I now fear. What if the postman’s delivering a letter that says my Temporary Protection VISA is no longer temporary?”

For the directors, writers and actors involved, the aim of Asylum is to encourage discussion about the treatment and perceptions of refugees in Australia. Melita Rowston said, “We can’t completely change the opinions of people and government but if we can tell a story that speaks better than stats then we can communicate the bigger picture of what is happening.”

The Point

Creative artists are donating their talents to raise money and awareness for asylum seekers' new lives

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