Author: Smita Misra
In late March of 2014, I sat with a young woman I was working with for a community performance project on the carpeted floor in the rented space of the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN). Despite our appreciation for the city’s unfolding flowers, we were not convinced that, as the locals claimed, Canterbury was one of England’s sunnier cities. The tiny room in which we sat was used mainly for printing documents and, occasionally, for breastfeeding moms who needed privacy from the boardroom upstairs.
My collaborator (whom I will refer to here as Anisa, due to the sensitivity of her immigration status) and I were only a month away from the Marlowe Theatre’s “The Garden of England” which was to be a community production at the city’s elite performance venue. The show was a spectacle-filled production, illustrating how migration had led to the development of Kent County from the time of Christopher Marlowe—the Elizabethan poet and Shakespeare’s lesser known but equally talented contemporary—himself. Held against the backdrop of Europe’s migrant crisis, “The Garden of England” presented Anisa, her brother Adnan (also a pseudonym), and me with a serendipitous opportunity to explore migrant identities through performance. As their asylum claims were reviewed by the UK Home Office, however, it became apparent that the siblings were expected to perform and internalize very different scripts than the ones they wanted to write — scripts of trauma instead of scripts of humor.
I had gone to Canterbury to study at the University of Kent. I was interested in learning how the language of trauma affected the everyday lives of migrants. As a Master’s student from Canada, I had been trying to develop connections in the unknown city for months, hoping to collaborate with a community organization to fulfill the requirements of my degree. Around the same time, Anisa and Adnan had entered the UK as young unaccompanied asylum seekers. While I attended refugee volunteer trainings, the Albanian siblings dealt with intense isolation. During the first few months after their arrival, asylum seekers like Anisa and Adnan are plagued with limited mobility and social opportunity as they wait for a decision on their claim. By the time I had met them in my capacity as a KRAN volunteer, the siblings were eager for a semblance of an engaged community life.