“When you watch something on TV it’s not completely real, there’s a screen,” says Mohamed Sarrar. “In Borderline audiences hear our stories, they hear my story, and no one else can tell my story like me.”
Sarrar, 28, is a political refugee from Sudan. After being arrested back home on unspecified charges, he felt his life was in danger so his family paid for him to be smuggled to Libya in the back of a truck. From there, an overloaded boat with 70 souls crossed the Mediterranean. He took a train from Italy to France, hiding in the toilet to avoid the ticket inspector, and eventually arrived in Calais, where he spent two and a half months in the ‘Jungle’ before making it to the UK. His story, like that of so many other people forced to take desperate steps to survive, doesn’t seem ripe for laughs, yet humour is such a fundamental part of all our lives – why should it be different for refugees?
When we think of Sudan, images of war and poverty dominate but Sarrar remembers the short comedy films that are popular in the country.
“They are stories that we can relate to,” he says. “Like, in Sudan we can borrow a lot of things in shops and pay a month later. In these comedies they make the reality bigger, like this man owes money to everybody, even to his landlord, so he had to find another place to stay but then the house was haunted!”
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Even in the Jungle, there were lighter moments during dark times. “I remember one day I was at the train station trying to jump on a train but there were a lot of police and security guards. With some friends we decided to hide in a big pipe until the night. We tried to jump again during the night but it was not possible. In the morning we were very cold and hungry so we went to the police, hoping that they would arrest us and drive us back to the Jungle (the station is very far from the Jungle: three hour walk, so we used to walk six hours almost every night). The police put us inside the car, so we were happy… but they just took us back to the train station! The police said ‘return to the Jungle’ but my friend didn’t want to get out of the car, he didn’t want to walk! So we didn’t have a chance to go to the UK but we didn’t have a chance to get arrested by the police as well! Humour helped me, just to sometimes not take things too seriously.”
Another refugee, 33-year-old Baraa Halabieh from Syria, agrees. “Humour doesn’t know borders,” he says. “Across all the cultures people laugh at the same things or situations, and in addition to that every culture has its own sense of humour, like jokes about cities or accents or playing with rhyme. My name in Arabic means ‘innocent’ but when French people pronounce it, stressing the R in their accent it means in Arabic, ‘prostitution’!”
I remember one day I was at the train station trying to jump on a train but there were a lot of police and security guards.
Sophie Besse is a theatre director who ran monthly drama workshops for refugees in the Jungle to give them a way to express themselves. She decided to create Borderline after meeting refugees who had made it to the UK and discovered their journey was not yet over. “I realised their situation in the UK was very difficult because they felt isolated,” she explains.
“This is where the PTSD starts. As long as they are in the Jungle they are fighting to survive but when you’re in the UK, you’re in a waiting space. You can’t work, you can’t study, there are no more volunteers and suddenly it kicks in: what you went through, what’s happening in your country, who you lost.”
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Borderline, “a comedy about a tragedy”, stars a cast of seven refugees alongside the same number of professional actors, and is a mix of black humour, singing, dancing and general clowning around. The undoubted star of the show is Enayatullah Jalalzai from Afghanistan. We have all had memorable birthdays but there is one Jalalzai will never forget. “I left my home on my own the day of my 16th birthday,” he says. “I followed several smugglers that my uncle paid, went to Pakistan by car, then we walked to Iran through the mount-ains. It took me one month to cross Iran: on foot, cycling and by car. My friend was killed there. Then I walked two days and two nights to get to Turkey, where a smugg-ler kept me prisoner for 25 days until my uncle sent more money. I was arrested on the Bulgarian border, they took all my clothes. In Bulgaria I took a bus to Croatia and then a train to Hungary, Austria and Germany. From there I had to walk into France because the police arrested me on the train. The whole journey to the Jungle took me three months.”
Sophie Besse met Jalalzai in Calais, where he lived alone for five months, and instantly spotted his star quality. “He has got the most tragic journey but at the same time he’s a natural clown,” she says. “He’s the one that makes us laugh out loud. For him, it’s his way to deal with life.”
“It was the first time I was acting – I loved it!” grins Jalalzai, now 17. “I love comedy, I love making people laugh and feeling happy. Many funny things happened in the Jungle. One day my friends cut the top of a fence so we could jump on the lorry but it was still too high for me so my trousers got stuck on the fence and my bum as well! We made fun of each other, we laughed and we forgot about everything!”
He recognises that taking part in Borderline gives him the chance to share his story – and talent – with audiences. “They see I am real,” he says. “They hear my story, they meet me, they see I am human.”
I love making people laugh and feeling happy. Many funny things happened in the Jungle
When Sarrar, Halabieh and Jalalzai started their journey, they could not have imagined it would end with them appearing on stage but they are naturals. Even when asked the question all comedians hate – can you tell us a joke? – Jalalzai doesn’t hesitate: “In an airplane there were three people. One from Saudi Arabia, one from the US and one from Afghanistan. When the plane flew over Saudi Arabia, the first man threw his golden necklace out of the window, ‘We have so much gold in our country!’, then when the plane was above the US, the second man threw some money out of the window, ‘We have so many dollars in my country!’. Then the plane arrived above Afghanistan. The third man was thinking really hard and suddenly he took the US man and threw him out of the window, ‘We have so many Americans in my country!’”
Borderline is at Brighton Fringe, May 15-17, The Warren Main House. The Big Issue is media partner for Brighton Fringe. psychedelight.org