Beirut – On a cold December evening in the main reception room of a grand, run-down 1930s villa in west Beirut, a group of Syrian and Syrian Palestinian actors sat huddled on the floor, surrounded by their audience.
Another actor stood over the group, gently asking a series of questions in different European languages – German, English, French and Russian – meant to mimic the feeling of a language classroom that many refugees attend after arriving in a new country.
As the questions were answered, the lights dimmed, and moments later the performance shifted to different area of the room.
Suddenly, the actors began stamping on imaginary cockroaches on the old villa’s marble floor, a scene designed to reflect the dismal living conditions faced upon arrival from Syria at Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps.
Before the war, I had a nice house with three shops. Here, I can barely afford rent. I am happy to perform, to relay our experiences. I am not just a refugee; I am a Syrian, and this is a human story that people should hear.
Terrestrial Journeys, an exploration of the refugee experience directed by British-Iraqi Dina Mousawi, was performed this month in the Zuqaq el-Balat neighbourhood of west Beirut. Mousawi is hoping to launch a similar show in the United Kingdom.
“Last year it was rare for the topic of emigration, the possibility of leaving Lebanon for Europe and elsewhere, to come up in conversation,” Mousawi told Al Jazeera. “[But] when I arrived in September, it was all anybody wanted to talk about.
“Once, during rehearsals, I gave the group some sticks and asked them to improvise a scene from home. After a couple of minutes they had created a boat, and acted out this scene paying a smuggler $1,000 to board a boat that then capsized at sea. It wasn’t a scene from home – it was tragic.”
Many of the actors in Terrestrial Journeys live in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra, Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh in Beirut. Living conditions in the camps are notoriously poor; Shatila was originally built in 1949 for 3,000 people, but is now home to more than 22,000. Electricity supplies are unreliable, access to safe drinking water is limited, and poverty is endemic.
Thousands of Syrians have settled in these areas since the start of Syria’s war, due to the availability of relatively cheap rents compared with other areas of the Lebanese capital. But this year, many have travelled onwards to Europe, dissatisfied with life in Lebanon.
Wessam Sukkari, a 38-year-old Syrian Palestinian and mother-of-two from Yarmouk camp in Damascus, said her husband travelled earlier this year to Germany from Turkey via Hungary.
“I want to join him,” Sukkari, one of the actors in Terrestrial Journeys, told Al Jazeera, “but I refuse to travel by boat.”
Restrictions against Syrian refugees in Lebanon have increased in 2015 as the Lebanese state has grappled with the influx of more than one million refugees into the country.
Many Syrians living in Beirut’s Palestinian camps say they rarely leave their homes, except to look for work, as they fear being detained by authorities for faulty paperwork.
“Now, wherever I go, I take my rental contract and identification papers,” Nidal Daher, a 28-year-old actor from Damascus, told Al Jazeera.
“There are more checkpoints. If I want to go to another area of the city, then someone there must vouch for me. In Yarmouk we were besieged; here we are also surrounded.”
Part of Mousawi’s inspiration for Terrestrial Journeys was her own experience of migration. In 1986, at the age of eight, Mousawi emigrated from Baghdad to the UK to escape the Iran-Iraq war. It is a topic she has explored previously in her work.
“When I arrived in the UK, I idolised Saddam Hussein. Growing up in Iraq, the propaganda would portray [Ayatollah] Khomenei in this terrifying way; by contrast, Saddam was handsome, neat, and good-looking. When I had nightmares, he would protect me,” Mousawi recalled.
Mousawi’s own experiences helped to establish empathetic bonds between the actors and director in Terrestrial Journeys, cast members told Al Jazeera. Their daily rehearsals also provided a break from daily stresses.
“I wake up excited to come to rehearsals,” Daher said during one of the show’s rehearsals earlier this month. “We have fun, we laugh, we joke – but we also cry and reflect on difficult experiences.”
Fadwa Awayti, 58, the oldest member of the cast, came to Lebanon from Yarmouk camp more than four years ago, near the beginning of the Syrian conflict. One of her sons who remained behind was killed by a sniper, she told Al Jazeera, while one of her daughters has relocated to Sweden.
Awayti says she has fantasised of opening an Arabic bakery and pastry shop in Sweden, but with an aging husband and a brother to look after inside Shatila camp, she is not optimistic that it will happen. She still dreams of one day returning to Syria.
“Before the war, I had a nice house with three shops. Here, I can barely afford rent,” Awayti said. “I am happy to perform, to relay our experiences. I am not just a refugee; I am a Syrian, and this is a human story that people should hear.”