By Alpha Abebe
As I stood in line ready to enter the Oxford Playhouse, I overheard the conversation between the staff person collecting tickets and a father and daughter who stood before me in the line. She warned the father that she was advising all guests with children that the play included strong language and difficult situations. Undeterred by the warning, the man smiled politely, lovingly put his hand on the shoulder of his adolescent daughter and proudly proclaimed, “That’s alright, she read the book. And she’s lived in Africa before, she’s seen real refugees”.
Refugee Boy is a theatre production based on the teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. The story follows Alem Kelo, a fourteen-year-old boy of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent who is seeking asylum in England. Before coming to England, Alem and his parents were forced to move between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the border war intensified and identity politics devolved into increasing violence. After managing to find a way to travel to the UK, Alem’s parents decide to leave him to be cared for by the British state as they continued their peacebuilding efforts in East Africa, and with the hopes that they would be reunited some day. After a difficult time in a children’s group home, Alem is eventually placed with a foster family, where much of the story then unfolds.
Anyone familiar with the work of Lemn Sissay will notice his fingerprints through the rhythm and poetics of the characters’ dialogue. I have admittedly not read Benjamin Zephaniah’s original novel, but I imagine much of the grit and humour in the play can be attributed to Lemn’s adaptation. Lemn Sissay is a British poet and author of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent. Much like the play’s protagonist, Lemn grew up in the British foster care system after he was given up by his birth parents. I am certain that Lemn had a compendium of memories to draw from as he helped to tell the story of a young boy coming of age in a state of flux, uncertainty, and adversity.
“Your country don’t want you, nobody wants you. Refugee boy. Say it! Refugee boy!”
“DON’T CALL ME REFUGEE BOY! MY NAME IS ALEM!”
This scene happens early in the play, as Alem tries to fight off a bully at the children’s home he is initially placed in. Ultimately his is pinned down, runs out of options, and is coerced into saying it. “I am a refugee boy”, he says in defeat. Moments later, in a dream-like vignette, Alem recites: “Ask me who I am again. Ask me where I’m from”. It is this tension between Alem-the-person and Alem-the-refugee that gripped me the most throughout the play. Alem fights vehemently to assert his individuality – refusing to abbreviate his name, preserving the memory of his homeland, and proclaiming his appreciation for Charles Dickens. He is however simultaneously thrust into the legal political bureaucracy that is the refugee adjudication system, where he must fight to be recognized as a refugee in order to earn his safety and freedom.
My mind drifted back to the father and daughter at the entrance to the theatre. “She’s seen real refugees.” In the moment, I was instinctively put off by what I’m sure was meant as an innocuous and reassuring comment by the father. But at the end of the play, I was also struck by the irony of the fact that Alem spent so much effort trying to resist the homogeneity and objectification that so often accompanies the label ‘refugee’, yet it was exactly the ‘refugee experience’ that we came to the theatre to see.
The Horn of Africa is a diverse region whose history has been punctuated by years of protracted conflict and rapid social and political change. While ‘refugee’ serves as a useful analytical and legal term to refer to the millions who have had to flea their homes, Alem reminds us that each of these refugees are people with individual stories, ambitions, challenges, and lives.
The aristocrat who travelled to the US for university then decided to file for asylum status after the monarchy was overthrown. The young man from Eritrea full of hopes and dreams who boards a crowded boat destined for the Mediterranean seas. The young Somali girl sitting in a classroom in the same Kenyan refugee camp where she was born. These are all ‘real refugees’ in the strict sense of the term, but I imagine they’d all have very different stories to tell if we had tickets to see a play based on their lives.
Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia
Tagged as benjamin zephaniah, east africa, Eritrea, ethiopia, lemn sissay, migration, oxford playhouse, play, refugee boy, review, somalia
Refugee Boy is a teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah. It is a book about Alem Kelo, a 14-year-old refugee from Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was first published by Bloomsbury on 28 August 2001 . The novel was the recipient of the 2002 Portsmouth Book Award in the Longer Novel category.
Alem is a refugee from Ethiopia. His parents are both Eritrean and Ethiopian. Alem then escapes to England from a violent civil war in Badme, which at the time of the novel (2000/1999), was disputed to be either in Ethiopia or in Eritrea. In 1991, 14-year-old Alem and his father are in the capital of Eritrea, his mother's home country. When Alem is ten years old, he and his family move to Harar in Ethiopia, his father's country. In Ethiopia, his father gets a better job within the postal service, but Alem's mother loses her job because the Ethiopian workers say they are "at war with Eritrea, so they will not work with someone from Eritrea." Alem's father is then told by his co-workers that he must leave his wife because she is Eritrean and therefore "the enemy". The mother was held at point blank before pushed on the bus.
One night the police break into Alem's home and force the family, along with other mixed families, onto buses going back to Eritrea. After returning to Eritrea the family begins to experience the same discrimination, and Alem is attacked and beaten at school.The father was held at point blank before pushed on the bus.
Alem's father takes him to London, England, under the pretext of a holiday to celebrate his fourteenth birthday. They stay in a hotel in Datchet, Reading, and his father takes Alem sightseeing in London. They finish the day with an Amharic goodnight. Then, Alem wakes up and looks over to the empty bed beside him and thinks he is at breakfast, but he finds that he has left him alone with a letter. The letter says that he and Alem's mother will continue to fight for peace with the organisation EAST and that they hope one day Alem can rejoin them. Mr.sartorius k allows Alem to stay for a few days and on the final day he brings in the Refugee Council who send Alem to a children's home. His time at the home is violent and disturbing as a rude boy Sweeny decides to beat him up and he tries to run away but ends up back at the home. He is then moved to london and placed in a foster family (the Fitzgerald's). Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald are a professional foster family. Ruth, their teenage daughter, seems unhappy with Alem. Alem returns from his first day at school, where he has made two friends, Robert and Buck, to discover a letter from his father indicating his mother has gone missing.
Alem receives a letter from the Home Office rejecting his application for asylum. An appeal date is set for 7 January 2000, where Alem meets Nicholas, his barrister, and charms the judge by wishing everyone a happy Christmas. At the appeal a hearing date is set for 16 February. Soon after Christmas, Alem receives another letter from his father explaining that his mother has been killed and that his father will try to get Alem back. Ruth, the foster family's daughter, provides solace for Alem.
His father soon turns up at his house and they go for dinner (spaghetti). The following Monday, Alem comes home to find that his father had gone to the Home Office to submit his asylum application, but was arrested and taken to Campsfield Detention Centre. Nicholas will also represent Alem's father and apply for their dank bail. Bail is awarded, and Alem's father is put into a grimy hostel in Forest Gate, and it is revealed that both Alem's and his father's application for asylum will be heard together.
On 15 February Alem, his father, Nicholas and Mrs. Fitzgerald go to court. The judge rejects the application for asylum on the basis that there are millions of Ethiopians and Eritreans unaffected by the war and that Alem is no longer without a family member to take care of him. They decide they will appeal. The fitzgeralds are but traces
Robert, Buck and Asher decide to start a campaign though Alem's father is not initially pleased with the idea but agrees to go to the first meeting. Alem also finds out that he is no longer able to stay at the Fitzgeralds' since he is no longer a ward of the state but has to move in with his father.
Alem's father gives his blessing for Robert, Buck and Asher to start the campaign. He moves in with his father and the campaign picks up pace. Several events including a dance and a street march are held. A petition with six thousand signatures is handed to the local MP. The Monday following the march Alem receives a hero's welcome from his school, and a Positive Pupil Certificate from the Headmaster.
Alem awaits his father at home with the certificate but instead his social worker comes to the door along with a police officer to inform him that his father has been shot and killed while leaving the London branch of EAST. Alem is returned to the Fitzgeralds' and receives a letter with his appeal date for 27 March.
Finally, Alem is awarded asylum. The author then notes that the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments signed a peace treaty in London on 20 December 2000.
The novel has been adapted into a play of the same name by Lemn Sissay. It was first performed in Leeds at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 9 March 2013.