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Theater

'Asylum Monologues' shows refugees' reality

The worst part about applying for asylum is waiting. In "Asylum Monologues," three asylum-seekers - from Togo, Ethiopia and Turkey - share the harsh reality of their life stories on German stages.

"They put us into prison. During the day, we were in a normal prison. The torture was mostly in the evening." Portions of Kurdish refugee Safiye's biography are told so casually that it's shocking.

The audience is silent as the actress speaks. It's so quiet you can hear the whirr of the air conditioning. A small, dark room in a Dusseldorf courtyard serves as the setting for the performance of a documentary theater piece called "Asylum Monologues."

The group Actors for Human Rights developed an unusual production: The stage consists of three actors behind music stands, a saxophone, and a white screen where the English text is projected in English. The sparse setup is more than enough for the exciting - and shocking - 90-minute show.

In "Asylum Monologues," actors tell the stories of three refugees in Germany: Safiye from Turkey, Felleke from Ethiopia, and Ali from Togo. Theater director and filmmaker Michael Ruf conducted long interview with the three people and transformed their life stories into a theater piece.

Woven together, the narratives offer a multi-faceted look at fate, home, and the challenges of fleeing and starting over in German society. Ruf founded Actors for Human Rights, based on a similar British troupe, in 2011. The monologues have been performed in 35 German cities and will continue to tour through August.

An endless wait

Ali, who suffers from polio and cannot walk without crutches, fled Togo because he was persecuted for speaking out on political issues. He has lived in Germany since 2002 without a residency permit, first in a small village in the north-eastern part of the country. He found refuge in what is officially known as a "collective accommodation," but what the residents refer to as a camp.

Actor Frank Musekamp reads the story of how Ali had to manage without crutches for a year and lived in constant fear of deportation.

"What moves me the most is that the refugees have the right to be here but are systematically knocked down," Musekamp said.

The process of applying for asylum can take a long time - up to 10 years in some cases. It becomes clear from the play just how trying the wait can be. During that time, refugees have limited travel rights and have to deal with harassment from the authorities and social exclusion.

"There, you have children. Here, you have nothing," said Ali of the difference between Togo and Germany.

Still, said he doesn't want to return to Togo because the health care system is poor and his family doesn't have enough money to take care of him. He has applied for asylum for humanitarian reasons, just like the other two refugees who share their stories.

A performance of 'Asylum Monologues'

The play is performed by Actors for Human Rights

Raising awareness

The minimalist production caters to an audience that doesn't necessarily frequent the country's prestigious theaters, since the project is not meant to entertain but to raise awareness.

"I would like to reach people, explain and make people more aware of the issue of asylum," said Ruf.

The monologues have been pared down to the basics; the story of Ali's wedding fills all of three sentences: "Then I asked her what she thought about our contact. She said, 'I have to think about it.' We got married in 1994."

Some of the incidences portrayed on stage sound more fictional than real. When Safiye came to Germany, her first application for asylum was denied. One of the reasons was because she hadn't properly described the prison she had been in.

While she had written in the application about a Turkish bath, the translator mistakenly called it a sauna. But, officially, there are no saunas in prison and the German officials apparently didn't understand that a Turkish bath wasn't a spa paradise, but rather a room with faucets on the wall.

Not over yet

Director Michael Ruf (l.) with Ali from Togo

Director Michael Ruf (l.) with Ali from Togo

Felleke from Ethiopia was nearly deported from Germany twice and physically resisted on both occasions. Hands bound, he was forced to undress. "They leave you naked in a small room," he explained. "Only half an hour before deportation do they bring you clothes."

Since then, Felleke has helped many other asylum seekers and was awarded a human rights prize by the refugee support organization Pro Asyl.

The play has been a success. But how has life continued for the three refugees? Safiye has had a child and received a visa to stay in Germany. Even after 10 years, however, Ali's struggle is not over. At the end of month, negotiations over his legal status will be held in the northern city of Schwerin.

Despite the struggles, Michael Ruf aims to present stories of heroes, not of victims. The director says he can learn a lot from the three refugees: courage, perseverance, and the will to stand up for their own rights.

"This isn't about giving someone a voice," added Ruf. "These people already have a voice."

Author: Ruth Krause / kjb
Editor: Sean Sinico

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