Rohingya refugee actors from the Rohingya Women Theatre gesture during a performance in Kuala Lumpur in September. Thomson Reuters Foundation
A group of Rohingya refugee women are telling their stories through theatre performances. Through their plays they act out issues they face, such as police harassment, access to health care and schooling, and domestic violence, writes Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – During two decades of living in the shadows in Malaysia, Rohingya refugee Syaedah Bi had no outlet to speak of her day-to-day struggles.
Without the legal right to work or access to public schools, the 21-year-old – who was smuggled out of Myanmar as a baby to escape persecution – passed her days in the Malaysian capital simply “eating and sleeping”, she said.
Finally that has changed.
Ms Bi and a small group of refugees have banded together to form the Rohingya Women Theatre, where their voices are heard and they have found some solace.
“I’m so happy, this is the first time we are able to tell our stories,” said Ms Bi, beaming with pride after one of her first performances on the outskirts of capital Kuala Lumpur.
“This is not just a show. These are real experiences that we have been through, we would like people to know these stories,” she said.
The theatre is the first of its kind in Malaysia, which hosts about 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, over a third of them Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship in Myanmar.
Violence has pushed more than 600,000 Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh since late August, but the minority group has been fleeing persecution for decades to countries such as Pakistan, India, Malaysia and Thailand.
Although they have found a safe haven, a long resettlement process that can take decades means many like Ms Bi continue to live in limbo, sometimes losing drive, ambition and a sense of purpose.
The Rohingya Women Theatre is hoping to tackle these problems.
On a rainy afternoon, Ms Bi and her group performed to a crowd of about 100 Rohingya at a community hall, acting out some of the issues they face on a day-to-day basis – from police harassment, to problems accessing public health care and schools, as well as domestic violence.
In one scene, Ms Bi played a desperate wife who tried to get her husband released after he was stopped by officials who demanded money – a scene drawn from when her husband was arrested a few years ago.
There was no script for the play, with the women deciding before what scenes they will act out, said Sharifah Shakirah, who heads the initiative.
“In our Rohingya community, women are not given chances as much as men because we have a cultural belief that women should stay at home.
“But in this theatre, they see women can do something,” said Ms Shakirah, a Rohingya refugee herself and founder of the Rohingya Women Development Network support group.
Joanna Sherman, director of the New York-based non-profit Bond Street Theatre, who trained the Rohingya women and worked with them to set up the theatre, said art is a creative way to help refugees overcome their trauma and build self-confidence.
The group has worked in over 40 countries since 1978 with refugees and those who are affected by conflicts including after the Bosnian war, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Theatre is not just about acting our part but it is also about leadership – knowing how to stand, address a group and how to be heard,” said Ms Sherman.
“Now they know that feeling of being in front of people and having your say and making an impact – that is power and they will never forget they had that power.
“When you empower people, you empower them in all the other aspects of their lives,” Ms Sherman said.
The Rohingya Women Theatre is also working with campaigners to use the platform to discuss and devise solutions on common issues refugees face, like what to do when one is arrested.
“Powerpoint presentations are a little dry, and so people don’t pay attention,” said Nazim Bashir from the charity Asylum Access Malaysia, which supports refugees, noting that theatre is effective for refugees with minimal education.
At the community hall, Nur Jaham was among the audience members who clapped and from time to time burst out laughing as they watched the Rohingya women perform.
The 35-year-old widow, who fled to Malaysia from Myanmar’s Rakhine state four years ago, said a scene which highlighted domestic violence reminded her how her late husband regularly attacked and hit her when he came home late and tired.
“After watching this, I learnt that I shouldn’t have suffered in silence if I am a victim of domestic violence,” said Ms Jaham.
So far the Rohingya Women Theatre is running on an informal basis with about half a dozen actors and has only performed to small community groups.
Some of the women also have difficulty showing up regularly due to family commitments or illnesses.
But Ms Shakirah dreams of recruiting more Rohingya women and bringing the theatre to a larger venue and audience.
“There are people who think refugees are incapable of doing anything – that we always ask for money or food. But we want to tell people we are also capable, we want to show you our talent, we can live peacefully together.
“When we perform on stage, we feel like we are given chances like others, we have the right to be happy,” she said.