Refugees’ story hits Australian stage

Theatre director Nigel Jamieson is best known to Australians for his spectacular productions celebrating the nation’s sporting achievements.

A scene from the play that has made audiences weep
A scene from the play that has made audiences weep

But his most recent work is a savage critique of another aspect of the country – its controversial treatment of asylum seekers.

Jamieson devised big budget events such as the closing ceremony for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and a centrepiece for the opening of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but he has ventured into different territory in his most recent work.

Titled In Our Name, the production tells the story of the Iraqi al-Abbadi family, who arrived in Australia on a refugee boat from Indonesia and then spent more than three and a half years in Australian detention centres.

In Our Name refers to the justification used by the Australian government that their policy of detention was done “in the name” of the Australian public.

The play, the most professional in a new genre of “documentary theatre” dealing with the asylum-seeker issue, is adding to an ongoing debate which will be a significant factor in a national election likely this year.

Australia is still holding almost 1500 people, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan and including around 350 children, in detention centres and the Prime Minister John Howard’s government remains unapologetic on its policy. 

Recently it came under attack from the country’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), but to no avail.


A two-year HREOC inquiry into the detention of child asylum seekers claimed that the policy contravened Australia’s commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The prime minister disagreed.

Opposition leader Mark Latham advocates release of children

Opposition leader Mark Latham
advocates release of children

“We don’t like detaining children – we really don’t – but the problem is that if you reverse the policy of mandatory detention, you will be sending a beckoning, a signal to people smugglers and you could have a resumption of the problems we had a few years ago,” Howard said.

The opposition leader, Mark Latham, who is considered to have a good chance of defeating Howard in the poll, has a softer policy on boat people, advocating the release of children in detention and a system of two-year temporary protection visas for people applying for refugee status.

In the three years from July 1999, 9160 boat people arrived in Australia’s migration zone compared with the country’s annual refugee intake quote of 12,000.

Behind bars

Of those arrivals, 2184 were children and although 92% had their applications to stay in Australia approved, they spent an average of one year, three months and 17 days in detention.

The al-Abbadis were among those whose applications were refused and were deported back to Syria, where they had previously lived as refugees.

With financial help from friends in Australia, they have since arrived in New Zealand, where they are again applying for residency.

Under advice from their lawyers, the family is reluctant to talk to the media, fearing that it might prejudice their case.

Growing friendship

Jamieson got to know the family through a programme of sponsored visits to Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, and struck up an immediate friendship.

“I got very fond of the family and was very distressed about what I and we had done to them as Australian citizens,” says Jamieson.

“This wonderful young man Humam al-Abbadi
– the teenage son – had dug himself a grave
and had been found
lying in it”

Nigel Jamieson,
theatre director

“I went overseas to do some work and when I came back again this wonderful young man Humam al-Abbadi – the teenage son – had dug himself a grave and had been found lying in it. He had then been moved to a psychiatric hospital.

“I found this very disturbing, and I thought that some way of honouring them would be to find some way of telling their story, given that they have no voice in Australia and I have some voice because of my work.”

The al-Abaddi’s are Iraqi Shia from Basra who had been prospering until the advent of the Iran-Iraq war in 1981. At that time they ran an electrical shop, owned two houses and a small farm in the country.

Jasim al-Abbadi, the father, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, during which time the family’s home was hit by a bomb.

Victims of war

But it was after the 1991 Gulf war that the family’s world began to fall apart.

The family is played by Iraqis toadd authenticity to the action

The family is played by Iraqis to
add authenticity to the action

With the Shia uprising in the south following the war and the government’s attempt to quell any dissent, the al-Abbadi family was among those caught in the middle.

After his wife’s brother and his sons were killed, Jasim himself was detained for two days, but was then released.

Following that, security members were frequent visitors to his electrical shop, continually threatening him as they pillaged the shop of washing machines and televisions.

Abandoning shop

Making the decision to flee, the family went first to Jordan and then to Syria, but were unable to settle there.

They had heard about Australia, which had a reputation as a place where migrants could make a new life, and so took the gamble and arrived as refugees in an Indonesian fishing boat, after making the dangerous crossing with people smugglers.

But Australia provided only three years of traumatic detention, and – ultimately – deportation. Because the family had arrived in Australia from Syria they could not technically be considered as refugees, despite the ordeal they had suffered.

Arriving in Australia, as Jasim’s character says in the play, was the beginning of the “family’s journey into hell”.

Untold story

Jamieson says a large part of his motivation in producing In Our Name was the fact that the stories of families such as the al-Abbadis had never been told to the Australian public.

“They are an extraordinary bunch of people, and I think their story is one of tremendous courage, of epic journeys, suffering, hardship, hope and love”

Nigel Jamieson,
theatre director

“Our government has denied us the right to make our own judgment on this issue, and has attempted to vilify these people as criminals and queue jumpers and terrorists,” says Jamieson.

“And yes I want people to be moved by the plight of these people, because I genuinely believe that if 90% of Australians actually had a notion of what these people had been through, then they would passionately object to mandatory detention.

“They are an extraordinary bunch of people, and I think their story is one of tremendous courage, of epic journeys, suffering, hardship, hope and love.”

Reviewers have written of the “stifled crying and appalled gasps” of the audience, although some have also pointed out that – despite its more mainstream status at a prominent Sydney theatre – Jamieson’s play would be largely “preaching to the converted” who already share his views on the issue.

Jamieson decided to use, as much as possible, an Iraqi cast and Iraqi musicians to make the performance as authentic as he could.

“A group of talented professional actors could have done the show, but they would have been involved – in some part – in a process of pretence,” says Jamieson.

“But because this is absolutely a true story, because it’s shocking and terrible, I wanted to keep a sense of measured telling and authenticity was important.”

Iraqi cast

One of the performers is both a professional actor and an Iraqi.

Majid Shukur left Iraq in 1995 and lived in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon before being granted refugee status and arriving in Australia in September 2001.

An actor and drama teacher in Iraq, he says that while he revels in the “freedom of speech and thought” in Australian society he is also shocked by the country’s treatment of asylum seekers.

“My view is that every country has the right to protect its borders but treating people like this – especially kids – I can’t understand under any circumstances,” he says.

An Indonesian boat carrying illegal immigrants to Australia

An Indonesian boat carrying
illegal immigrants to Australia

“This harsh policy gives a different face to Australian culture and people, and I think they can solve this problem in a different way, rather than using detention centres.”

Shukur says In Our Name has been provoking powerful reactions from audiences, many of whom have been reduced to “tears of shock, shame and pity”.

“To give people some information about what really happened in those detention centres is very important, because it is the right of Australian people to know the truth,” says Shukur.

‘We’ve had great feedback, and you can see that many people in the audience want to do something about it now – either letters to the government, donating money, or attending rallies – and I think that’s a great thing.”

In Our Name is currently showing at Sydney’s Belvoir Street theatre.

Source : Al Jazeera

More from News
Most Read