Review: Being Here–The Refugee Project

by Lynn on March 21, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Created by Joel Bernbaum from interviews conducted by Joel.

Directed by Michael Shamata

Costumes by Jeff Chief

Music by Tolen Stokes

Lighting by Sophia Tang

Production Design by Carole Klemm

Filmed and edited by Candalario Andrade

Cast: Ghazal Azarbad

Ustin Eckert

Evan Frayne

Kayvon Khoshkam

Adrian Neblett

Monice Peter

Celine Stubel

NOTE: Because the run for this is so short and I was aware of this wonderful project only recently, and I want people to see it, the review is shorter than this production deserves.

Michael Shamata, the Artistic Director of the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C. has created a season of filmed plays while theatres are shut to audiences.

With Being Here—The Refugee Project playwright Joel Bernbaum interviewed refugees who came to Canada and settled across the country. Bernbaum also interviewed their sponsors and others. There are stories from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Calgary, Alberta, etc.

The catalyst for the outpouring of money and the eagerness to help refugees was the photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach. His family were trying to escape war-torn Syria with other refugees when their small plastic dingy capsized.

One of the interviews was of a Canadian woman in Nova Scotia who learned at her father’s funeral that he had sponsored a refugee. The refugee came to the funeral and told the woman of her father’s self-lessness in saving him. The daughter had no idea.  She then decided she would do the same thing. Various things got in the way of her fulfilling her intension but then she saw that photo of the dead boy and she decided the time was right.

There are interviews with various refugees. Two Ghanaian men who didn’t know each other,  found themselves in a bus station in Minneapolis and both wanted to go to the Canadian border. A stranger offered to drive them and let them out in the middle of nowhere. They walked for

hours. It was freezing and the snow was deep. They had no idea where they were going and the frostbite was so severe, they lost their fingers.

A woman from Iraq, a trained veterinarian, had a harrowing journey in which she had to pay for the rescue of her kidnapped son before she could escape through Syria and onward to Canada.

Each refugee was escaping death if they stayed in their home country. Each demonstrated such resolve, character and tenacity to save their lives and those of their families to find a better life, in this case, Canada. One spoke of a ‘second chance at life’ in her journey to Canada.

The stories of the sponsors were interesting. The woman from Nova Scotia wanted to “rescue somebody.” What seemed interesting to me was the tone of various sponsors that those they sponsored should be grateful they were being saved. What seemed to be absent was any kind of understanding at the hardship, horror and desperation the refugees had gone through to come to Canada. There was an expectation of how the refugees should behave: learn English, take any job and earn a living and be a productive member of society in Canada.

One refugee had difficulty learning English because he was illiterate in his own language. Dealing with that didn’t occur to the sponsor.

Initially the film alternated between the stories of sponsors and their intentions and the stories of the refugees so that we got many sides of many stories. It was only at the end of the film did we have the other side of the same story. Hana was the Iraqi woman who paid kidnappers and then fled with her children to Canada. In one heartbreaking story she tells how she asked her young son what he wanted for his birthday, and he said his own pillow. They have been shunted around from so many refugee hotels that he never had the same pillow. That image of such impermanence squeezed the heart.

The sponsor found Hana difficult, feeling she was not grateful enough for their efforts. An obvious miscommunication.  They were insensitive to what Hana needed and wanted in the new life. She was a professional woman who had to momentarily forget she was accomplished.

The project is an example of ‘verbatim theatre’—the actors listened to the actual interviews and copied every inflection, every pause and ‘um’ to the letter. Michael Shamata directed this with sensitivity and attention to detail. Many close-ups were very effective.

I found that there was the subtlest sense of smugness on the part of the sponsors. Perhaps this gives the sense that Being Here—The Refugee Project might be lopsided with the sponsors expecting more than is reasonable. The sponsors want to do well for the other side without seeming to be sensitive to what it cost the refugees to get to Canada.

Doing right. Being humane. Helping when someone is in trouble, wanting a second chance at life, just wanting the opportunity to work, even without fingers, are some of the themes of this eye-opening, heart-squeezing project.

Produced by The Belfry Theatre, Victoria, B.C.

Being Here – The Refugee Project ( will be streaming from March 16 – 21.

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