Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – As the lights go out and darkness envelops the room, three young girls take the stage under three bright lights to speak to the audience and tell the stories of three refugee girls from distant but similar countries.
This scene is part of a play by the refugee-run theater troupe Parastoo, which has been performing for five years in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. The Roof That Collapsed is the latest of many plays written and directed by Parastoo founder, Afghan writer and director Saleh Sepas, who is also a refugee.
For two of the three girls, the play marks their first time performing on stage, but finding rehearsal locations for the amateur band was a challenge.
“I used to drive them to public parks to do our rehearsals. We just wanted to achieve something with this show despite the difficulties, and we did that,” Sepas told Al Jazeera.
Sepas founded the refugee theater group in 2017, partly because he wanted to help himself as a writer, but also to help refugees themselves.
Parastoo is based on the ideas of Theater of the Oppressed – a theatrical form first developed in the 1970s by Brazilian theater practitioner Augusto Boal – which uses theater as a means to promote social and political change and engage audiences in the room inviting him. to analyze and discuss what they see.
“Theatre as an art has the power to bring about change, empowerment and lift refugees out of isolation,” he told Al Jazeera.
“I realized that refugees in Malaysia had no voice and theater could be their voice, I wanted us to help our communities.”
Parastoo’s latest play tells the story of three young girls from Afghanistan, Myanmar and Yemen, as they tell the audience how they became refugees in Malaysia. The girls share stories of war, death, loss and trauma, with powerful words about childhoods lost to war.
The piece is part of Parastoo’s Converging Paths show, which also includes a screening of a film about refugees by Parastoo’s producer and communications adviser, Iranian filmmaker Amin Kamrani.
Sepas told Al Jazeera he wants those watching the show to know and understand the reasons that bring refugees to Malaysia, as many Malaysians do not understand the lack of choice they have when fleeing war.
“Some people think we come here for the money and the opportunity, and I wanted to challenge this misinformation about refugees,” he said.
Kamrani’s film The Person in the Frames also presents the stories of three refugees in Malaysia – a boxer from Afghanistan, a painter from Iran and a queer poet and writer from Syria – and offers audiences a look into their lives and individual struggles.
Kamrani says he wanted to break stereotypes with his film. He explains that discussion of refugees in Malaysia is often dehumanizing for refugees as they are portrayed as a mass of like-minded humans, or reduced to numbers and numbers.
“I wanted to tell human stories because as humans we connect with art, and we always see a part of ourselves in other humans, regardless of the differences,” he said. he told Al Jazeera.
“Art can remind us of our shared values and experiences as humans in times of uncertainty, and I believe that being human in times of atrocity is an act of activism.”
Sepas is one of 3,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers currently in Malaysia. Afghans are one of the smallest refugee communities in the country, which numbered nearly 183,000 refugees and asylum seekers in May 2022, according to the UN refugee agency.
Refugees in Malaysia struggle with a lack of work and education opportunities because local laws do not recognize their existence and Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN convention. As a result, refugees are considered undocumented migrants and denied the right to work or access formal education.
In addition to their struggles, refugees in Malaysia have to spend years waiting for possible resettlement in a third country. Such resettlement is not guaranteed and many find themselves in limbo with no vision for their future and no uncertainty about their next destination.
Sepas describes the situation as “torturing” – noting that some people have been waiting for more than 12 years – but he believes in the power of art to help refugees cope with the prolonged uncertainty in their lives.
“Imagine a boat floating in the middle of the sea and suddenly breaking apart. People in the water will struggle and swim in the hope of surviving, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he told Al Jazeera.
“With art, we try to stay alive in this sea of uncertainty.”
A step for hope
Many refugees live with a variety of mental health issues due not only to the horrors that forced them to flee their home country, but also to the reality of life in host countries like Malaysia.
A 2021 study published in the medical journal The Lancet on mental health services for refugees in Malaysia during the COVID-19 pandemic found that the prevalence of mental disorders was extremely high.
“Up to 43% [of refugees] meeting criteria for at least one of common mental disorders, including depression, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and complicated grief,” he said.
But in the face of all these challenges, Parastoo continues to make more shows that tell the stories of refugees and provide a platform for refugee actors to present themselves to various audiences in Malaysia.
With many performances over the years, and more to come, Sepas believes theater can give hope to refugees from all communities as they see their stories told to the world on stage.
Additionally, Parastoo is on the verge of realizing a long-awaited dream of having its own space in Kuala Lumpur, with the launch of its new art center later this year.
According to Sepas, the center will allow Parastoo to produce more and better performances and provide much-needed space for young refugees to come together.
He plans to use the center to organize art, music and writing classes and a book club for refugees.
“We want refugees to read again and reconnect with the education they are deprived of because of legal issues,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Young refugees need space, and they can do great things. All they need is someone who sees the great potential in them.