Many of us have experienced a feeling of profound isolation during this period in lockdown. Now, more than ever, we are acutely aware of the human connections we are surrounded by, from our neighbours on the street who we’ve come to recognise during our weekly clap for the NHS, to the crowds we are no longer propelled along by while our high streets are closed and empty.
Never before has technology been so important to keep us connected as we all experience this unique situation together around the world. The revolution in technology, driven by social media, has been a vital part of our lockdown, with Zoom quizzes, TikTok dances and binge-watching TV. Personally, I have spent most of my time these past few months watching myself in a small box in the corner of a screen, so actual socialising with life-size people (without also seeing a small version of my face using over-enthusiastic hand gestures), will take some getting used to once restrictions ease. I have exhausted every fancy top I have and find myself shocked at the end of the day when I close down my laptop and find I also have legs. All of us have had to adapt to the new normal.
However, for young refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict and persecution, who come to our country for work and a better life, isolation is a feeling they are all too familiar with – a systemic experience that existed long before the pandemic. Many arrive without their families and, due to language barriers and long drawn-out asylum claims that prevent them from working or entering further education, they experience acute isolation on a daily basis. One young refugee, Mika, who arrived here from Azerbaijan four years ago, told me: “When I arrived in the UK I didn't know anyone, didn’t have a phone, anything. I couldn’t speak English, so it was kind of isolating for me. I never went out because I was too scared, because I didn’t know anything. By the time I was just getting used to it and starting to go out, the second coronavirus isolation came. I said, ‘Here it goes again!’”
Compass Collective is a non-profit theatre company that works to prevent these young people from feeling detached. It helps them integrate into new communities in the UK, using the arts to build resilience and confidence in an unfamiliar and daunting place as a new arrival. It is a vital lifeline, creating a space to forge friendships and connections that will last long after their sessions. As one of the young members put it: “If you don’t have family, you can always use your friends as your family, as long as you can trust them and you believe them. You can always use them as your brother as your sister.”
I have a personal connection with the company, founded by my close friends Leah and Mhairi Gayer, and many of the wonderful workshop leaders are friends that I met doing plays with the National Youth Theatre. NYT was where I developed my closest friendships and confidence in my own voice, and Compass has brought this ethos to its work, providing a space for young refugees and asylum seekers to grow and integrate into our community. I volunteered with Compass in 2018 when it were running workshops for Akwaaba, a Sunday social for migrants in east London. We provided engaging and creative activities for more than 60 children there, and I saw first-hand what a difference the arts can make. For the children we brought joy, imagination and creativity, and to the parents a moment of relief from the stress of life as an asylum seeker in the UK.
This year was going to be a big one for Compass, with seven nationwide projects lined up for young people from Birmingham, Leeds and London to name a few, but due to the pandemic many of these projects couldn’t go ahead. The company quickly realised that now was the most important time to keep young people engaged and connected. The best way to do that was – as we have all discovered in the past few months – to use technology. However, 90 per cent of the young people didn’t have phone data and 80 per cent had no access to laptops. Compass launched a Just Giving campaign to provide participants that needed it with data, phones and laptops, and set about organising a meeting every Friday to get creative. It decided to set a task to make a film in lockdown in collaboration with the Globe and Migration Matters to celebrate Refugee Week, “a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees”.
Over the last eight weeks, Compass has been meeting regularly to workshop and create content for the film. Participants were asked about their interests and skills, and were assigned to a virtual room with a leader to take care of them. There were two writing-rooms, a dancing-room and a music- and song-writing-room. Everything in the film has been generated by the young people. I was lucky enough to join one of the workshops and meet some of the young members to hear about what it has meant for them during lockdown. As I logged on to the Zoom call, it was clear I was entering into a wonderful friendship group. Compass has united young refugees and asylum seekers across the UK, from Glasgow to Kent, and even though many of them haven’t met in person, they have all been through something very special together.
One 17-year-old from Afghanistan, a rising actor and director, told me: “Isolation is something that we refugees are really familiar with. It happens to all of us. Lockdown has been hard, I'm not going to lie, because I am someone who used to go to college and come home at seven, eight at night, do some homework, eat and sleep. I have been in the UK for two years; the first year we did a show at the Globe Theatre. And this year we are doing it online because of the virus. These guys are helping us to do something that we are passionate about, that we love. As a refugee you don’t get that chance to be on top platforms, to get noticed and do what you want and that really bothers me a lot.” Another young member, Mimi from Somalia, who narrates a beautiful piece in the film about her dreams of being a pilot said: “Compass Collective has been really good and very helpful to us, showing us the right path to our future and supporting us. We feel more welcomed as refugees and asylum seekers in the country. We don’t feel alone, we feel we have a shoulder to lean on. We can speak and you can hear our voices.”
So, this Saturday 20 June at 7pm on the Shakespeare’s Globe website, Compass Collective will premiere On-the-Line, a unique film created in lockdown with 42 young refugees and asylum seekers (watch a preview, below). It is full of laughter and love, and for many, has provided some vital social contact. “Compass is not just to have fun, not just to perform," says Espoir DeKin, an up-and-coming singer songwriter from the Congo (you can find his music on Spotify and YouTube). “For me, expressing myself was like therapy as well. It was amazing.”
If you have a spare moment, tune in and enjoy the incredible work these young people have made about their own very personal journeys. Shot entirely on camera phones, the film leaves you with a sense of optimism for a kinder, more empathetic future. It’s a film made with great skill, tremendous love and a real sense of community in a time when coming together has never been more important.
To support Compass Collective, donate to the Just Giving campaign, here.
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