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“What Do They Want Me to Do, Cry?”: Audience and Authority in the UK Asylum-Seeking Process

The asylum bureaucracy demands a narrative of trauma and mental illness, regardless of lived experience.

Afghan refugee Rahman Sahah, 32, and Mirwais Ahmadzai, 27, start their hunger strike outside Her Majesty's Government home office on August 1, 2018, in Glasgow, Scotland.

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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.

By late January of 2014, I was in contact with the production’s artistic director, a well-caffeinated and enthusiastic storyteller with a generous understanding of time. At a KRAN event, he asked if I knew of any migrants who would be interested in performing in the production. Aware of Anisa and Adnan’s enthusiasm for theater, I approached the siblings immediately. That’s how we came to be in the makeshift rehearsal space at KRAN. Low on most resources — including time, space and local bearings — that day, we were brainstorming for Anisa’s performance. My relationship with them began through this theater project on migrant identity, but later, I served as a reference for them when their asylum claim was rejected. Emerging from their lived experience of the legal process of asylum seeking, this story illustrates how the bureaucratic system paradoxically rewards and punishes performances of trauma in asylum seekers, even when they are specifically avoiding those kinds of self-narratives.

The question and politics of authorship are complex in artistic collaborations like the one Anisa, Adnan and I were engaged in. I was to inspire and facilitate the writing of their autobiographical monologues; they were to write them. I was to direct their performances; they were to perform them as their own. As Anisa would admit to me after the production was over, she wasn’t particularly proud of the monologue we had claimed was hers. “It’s not your fault, but I have a hard time saying no,” she told me. “Every time you suggested an idea, I couldn’t say no.” Instead, she reflected on her brother’s performance — a piece that she had mostly written away from our workshops. “People loved Adnan because he was funny,” Anisa said, slightly ruefully.

If I had ever assumed that stories were reflections of the performer instead of the audience, then my experience facilitating, befriending, mentoring and walking alongside Anisa and Adnan, both on and off stage, had undermined that very notion. Instead, I found out, as a corpus of refugee and performance scholars had already established, that the bureaucratic process of asylum seeking was adept at extracting particular kinds of performances from claimants. Most often, these were performances of trauma and mental illness. While the asylum system authored their identities, the migrants performed, repeated and internalized them.

That day in March 2014, I had adapted a storytelling technique as Anisa and I began our collaborative project. I asked her to think of a particular place that relaxed her, and to describe in great visual detail the elements that made her feel relaxed.

“Well, being at home with my mom and brothers,” she said.

“OK.” I stared, unsure of whether to encourage her thought process or not. During our KRAN volunteer training, we had been forbidden from bringing up notions of home, journey and family with asylum seekers — they could be potential triggers for traumatic memories.

“Do you like thinking of home?” I blurted out. When I re-watch the footage from that workshop, it’s clear that, at that moment, I was trying to prove mostly to myself that I was making every effort to steer clear of painful subject matter. I was not going to be like “those” theatre practitioners who exploited the heartbreaking stories of their participants for their productions. No, my participants were going to recollect happy times.

“Not really,” Anisa answered.

“You don’t need to then,” I jumped in, evidently expecting no other response from her.

“It’s OK,” she said. “My dad wasn’t always home; I can think of moments when my dad wasn’t there. Those were happy times. So, um, when I think of it, I think of … me being home….” Anisa cut herself short by laughing. She rubbed her left hand across her forehead and sighed.

Laughed again.

Looked up.

Looked down and laughed. “My dad had stopped me from going to school. I cannot….” She shook her head, rubbed her forehead and wiped her eyes.

I swallowed the lump in my throat with a drawn out “Um.”

“How do you like your new flat? Are you happy to be out of foster care and living with just your brother?” I asked, after our workshop.

“Yeah, it’s nice to be with Adnan. But I thought that, because I’m 17, I should legally be under adult care myself. But I have to be responsible for myself and my 16-year-old brother.”

“Really, eh?” I asked, unsure of the country’s legal system.

“Yeah, they called and said that I was very articulate. They said that I seemed independent enough to take care of myself. So that’s why they took me out of foster care, even though I’m too young to be living on my own.”

“What?!” I said suddenly. “In those words? What does that even mean?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s because my English is good,” Anisa tried to reason. “I was thinking, ‘Well, yeah, I have to be strong in order to survive. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten here even.'” Looking straight ahead at the grey clouds, she said without a flinch, “What do they want me to do, cry?”

I weighed the idea of saying something in a fit of angry passion — They probably do, Anisa, I wanted to seethe. I didn’t. Instead, I remembered something that Charlotte, the KRAN project manager, had told me only a few days prior to this incident.

“We had a situation this morning,” Charlotte had said to me. “A young person had come in and was desperate to get some help for his friend who had been detained. We called the center and did what we could, but they wouldn’t give us any information on how his friend was doing — they couldn’t even tell us whether or not his friend was being held at that center. Our guy was really worried because his friend had had episodes of psychosis and was likely to harm himself.” Charlotte would sometimes curl her hair in her right hand as she spoke, a sign that she was thinking out loud. “But do you know what?” she continued. “Now, this is going to sound awful, but sometimes, if you let a person spiral down to self-harm, then you have a stronger asylum case. Then they’ll finally get the institutional support that they need. You just have to hope it won’t go too far.”

Scholar Saidiya Hartman, who writes on African American history and literature, had written about the dangers of repeating the descriptions of lived trauma, changing the way we understood the damage of slavery itself: “Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible.” I repeated Hartman’s words, now a mantra, to myself as I continued to walk beside Anisa.

I never mentioned Charlotte’s story to Anisa. It wasn’t until months later, in mid-August of 2014, when Anisa and Adnan’s asylum claims had been rejected, that I looked back at the video recording of the one and only time that Anisa had cried in front of me. Asking if I could provide character references in support of their appeal, Anisa wrote in an email: “The Home Office wants to know that we’re vulnerable, respectful, and hardworking.”

“But nothing,” she added, “that suggests that we’re dynamic, independent, or confident.” In addition, the Home Office’s rejection letter stated that Anisa and Adnan’s participation in the theater production was evidence that the siblings did not need state protection. As they prepared for the appeal, Anisa and Adnan embodied a very particular kind of self-narrative — one that was radically different from the performance they had written for themselves and performed at the Marlowe. This time, the author of their narratives was the UK Home Office, and Anisa and Adnan were performing according to pre-written scripts. In a span of six months, I witnessed Anisa and Adnan’s public displays of optimism get overshadowed by melancholia as they took on the task of convincing the UK Home Office that trauma was stitched into their being. To keep in character with the script assigned to them by these bureaucratic forces, Anisa and Adnan delivered their performances as the UK Home Office had already authored for them.

Two young asylum seekers who had once resisted showing any kind of emotional vulnerability were now sacrificing their self-conceptions for this last chance. In their appeal, Anisa and Adnan, with the help of their references, wrote themselves anew as traumatized, helpless, desperate victims, because as Anisa had once said to me, “I couldn’t say no.”

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