LONDON: “When I saw children dying in front of me, I realized we should not be here anymore because no one cares about us and we could easily be killed. It is crazy to stay and say, ‘God will help us.’ No. No one can save you or help you in this war. You can’t have a normal life, or control anything, or protect your children.”
This was the bitter conclusion reached by Sana’a Al-Froukh before she gathered up her four young children and left her Syrian homeland for Jordan as a refugee in February 2013.
Her resolve had finally been broken after witnessing the deaths of children at her village’s primary school, where she taught, as they tried to flee from a bombing raid.
“I had stayed in my village. (I told people) the international community would help and we would deliver our message to the world,” she told Arab News. “It was a romantic view of the war. I discovered that I was deluding myself.”
Her husband had already been forced to flee to Jordan, having been arrested by the regime and serving four months in prison.
“My husband told me, ‘You are responsible for the children. You have to leave the country.’ At that time I had three daughters and a son,” Al-Froukh said. “I left my dad, mum, sisters and brothers behind in Syria.”
Her story echoes the fate of millions of people today and throughout history. But rather than allowing such experiences to fade into oblivion, a group of Syrian refugees in the UK have made it their business to remind the world of their suffering.
The vehicle they chose to speak through was ‘The Trojan Women,” written in 415 BCE by the Greek playwright Euripides. It is a work that powerfully depicts the inhumanity of war.
The idea for using the play as a structure for today’s victims of war to speak out came from British journalist Charlotte Eagar who collaborated with her husband William Stirling and Syrian producer Itab Azzam to found the Trojan Women Project.
Eagar witnessed the devastating impact of war on civilians — and interviewed hundreds of refugees — as the Observer’s Balkan correspondent in the 1990s.
When she heard a broadcast of ‘The Trojan Women” on the BBC World Service, she realized she was listening to stories from thousands of years ago that could have been told today.
“All the stories are the same. The weapons change, but war doesn’t change,” she said. “The effect on people on their lives is the same. Nothing has changed.”
The team set about organizing workshops with female Syrian refugees. “We saw the therapeutic value of bringing together people who are lonely, miserable and bored, who have been through a very traumatic experience and don’t have much money and are scared and have lost a sense of self and community,” said Eagar.
Three productions of the play have been staged since the first performance in Jordan in 2013. And Eagar has noticed a change in the emotional tone over the years, she explained.
“Each time we have had a very different reaction from the groups. The first time was in 2013 in Amman just after the onset of the war and they were in shock. That shock gave their performance great poignancy and pathos. It was very raw.
“Three years later in 2016 at performances in London, Liverpool and Edinburgh there was a rage that the war was still ongoing,” she continued. “And in Scotland in 2019 it was different again, because they had hope. It traced the whole trajectory from the onset of the war to finally arriving in Scotland as refugees.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has meant this year’s planned performances have been cancelled with fundraising now a priority to ensure the project can continue.
Al-Froukh has been living in Glasgow, Scotland, since 2017. She and her children were finally reunited with her husband in 2018. She is now studying for a Masters in psychology at Strathclyde University, a natural progression from her work counseling traumatized refugees in Jordan. She brings a special empathy in her work as a clinical psychologist having personally lived the refugee experience. Her children are settled and doing well at their respective schools and universities. On the surface, everything has turned out well.
But there has been much to deal with along the way. Like when the family first arrived in Jordan and Al-Froukh had to face her loss of identity, rights and status as a Syrian citizen and professional.
“That new state — being a refugee — was not easy at all. I thought because we shared the same language and religion (in Jordan) it would be easier, but it wasn’t like that,” she said.
She is hugely grateful to the Scottish people, but says the tendency for everyone to be very polite all the time sometimes makes her feel she is not really connecting: “I can never be sure whether they understand me. Arabs are more direct. But these are small things — differences between the cultures.”
Al-Froukh took some time before agreeing to appear on stage in “Trojan Women.” One of her concerns was that people would view coming to see the play as their ‘contribution’ to the cause; that they would clap and cheer, then leave and forget. But she also knew it was important to speak out — particularly about the plight of prisoners whose fates are unknown.
“We have many people in prison and no idea about what has happened to them,” she said. “And unfortunately we don’t see a lot of people speaking or caring about such things.”
However, the performances have taken an emotional toll. During the final performance at the Edinburgh Festival last year, Al-Froukh broke down on stage. And she says she thinks it unlikely that she will perform in public again, although she will continue to support the project.
“I couldn’t stop my tears,” she said. “I was speaking about my Dad. I thought I had dealt with this experience, but on the stage I couldn’t control my emotions.”
When she left Syria, her father told her that she would not return, saying “There is no peace that will stop this crazy war.”
“I denied that, because I needed to protect myself emotionally,” she told Arab News. “We just said ‘Bye.’ I didn’t even hug him. That made me feel regret until finally I understood that it was not my fault,” she said.
They now communicate regularly through video calls. But, eight years on, it is clear the pain of separation is still extremely raw for Al-Froukh.
“I cannot imagine that I will die without seeing him again,” she said.