We´re back in Sulaymaniah! After Covid forced us to disrupt our work last year, we physically can meet and start working again with the ensemble of the Sabunkaran Theatre Group. Yet bevor writing about first rehearsals and experiences made in the group, I have to tell you about our theatre efforts in the refugee camps, that are still scattered amidst the dust and heat of the suburbs of Sulaymaniyah, this second largest city of North Iraq. Resetteling, returning home- for many inhabitants it´s either not possible – Assad is reigning Syria more totalitarian then ever – or it would be desatrous for the refugees: even the regions that have been „freed“ from the so-called Islamic State are either politically still unstable, are being resettled by other ethnic groups or left ruined and devoid of infrastructure like schools or hospitals.

That´s why, besides being a humanitarian tragedy for families having been living here for five or more years, it is a blessing that the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq is still maintaining these camps. This is why we decided to not merely visit the camps in showing our performances like we did all the years before, but to give, for the time we´re here, children´s workshops in theatre and improvisation. After shyly asking STEP, an NGO that builds its work on a long experience with the children of the city, if they would be able to host this workshop – yes, they areable! – there´s a setback shortly before we are about to start our courses: A Corona outbreak in Barika camp renders any direct physical contact, that theatre always relies on, impossible. Once again, the refugee camps are sealed off, with their smartphones the NGOs try to maintain makeshift contact with children and parents.

Foto: Paolo Accardo

Then, during the first week of our stay comes the redeeming news: Because you, the Germans are vaccinated, you can start the courses in small groups. And just as long as this text needs to talk about theater, as much effort and detours it was until we were able to meet the first children in the camps´ improvised rehearsal room. But thanks to STEP, things are going fast: The first courses are scheduled, of the many interested children three groups of six or seven are assembled, and only four days after our arrival early one morning we´re sitting on a carpet with a group of bubbling Syrian children.

Foto: Paolo Accardo

We are just as excited as them, and start with ball games to get to know them individually. Soon we realize that for some of the children even saying one’s own name aloud to the group is a big effort. (and a lot of fun for some: little Mohammed keeps saying his name over and over again and laughs at us with all he has). So before encouraging anything like theatrical expression, we´ll first work on what German educators clumsily call „strengthening of the self“. 

The very next game – „show us how your favorite animal moves“ – shows us how the kids´ development differs within the group. We decided that everyone is welcome in the room, even those who just shyly sit apart and keep shaking their heads at everything we offer, as we can only guess (and will learn bit by bit in the coming days) what they have gone through before they came here.

Another thing we learn is, that the childrens´world is a lot poorer in sensual experiences than that of their European peers, because – it´s as sad as it is simple – many have spent the longest part of their short lives in this refugee camp, a surrounding that, with its plastic tents, UNHCR containers and unpaved dusty streets, offers no stimulation or let alone beauty to these kids. So the first days in the camp turns out to be above all a lesson for us, the guests from rich peaceful Europe. Influenced by sweet and cuddly German TV documentaries, we naively ask the group – and get our answers straight: „What are two animals doing when they meet?“ „They fight!“ „What else could they be doing?“ „Eat each other!“ Yet at the end of the day, Firaz, the smallest boy of the group, has one more question: „Will you come back next Wednesday?“ After World War II one wise European said: You have to imagine Sisyphus as a happy man.

Stefan Otteni