Refugees Got Talent

Four Syrian friends put on a TV-style talent show to lift spirits at the refugee camp where they are stranded.

Mahmoud has been stranded at a Syrian refugee camp in Greece for months. Dealing with the trauma of war and dislocation, depression is spiralling for many residents. 

He and his friends hatch a plan to lift people’s spirits. They decide to organise an exciting TV-style talent show at the camp. 

Hundreds tune in to watch people sing, play instruments and perform sketches on the show, which is broadcast on an internet channel the group already run called refugees.tv. 

But they soon face a backlash. With families mourning deaths of loved ones and growing increasingly desperate to find out when they will be resettled, some feel the upbeat show is insensitive. 

Mahmoud and the others don’t back down. They want the contest to build up to a thrilling final with viewers voting for the winner, convinced it can bring people a little joy, even at the most difficult of times.

Sameer, Mahmoud, Basil and Mustafa, the four friends behind refugees.tv, sit behind the Refugees Got Talent judges' table in the Oreokastro refugee camp, Greece [Al Jazeera]
Sameer, Mahmoud, Basil and Mustafa, the four friends behind refugees.tv, sit behind the Refugees Got Talent judges’ table in the Oreokastro refugee camp, Greece [Al Jazeera]


By Theopi Skarlatos

I decided to make this film because I wanted to answer one question: what does a person do when they feel like the whole world has given up on them? Surprisingly, the answer in this case was to set up a talent contest.

The contest was organised by the four friends who run refugees.tv, an internet-based mock television channel through which they managed to humanise their often inhumane surroundings. When the borders to Europe closed down and people around them wondered why nobody would help them, they used satire to remind people that the European Union has an obligation to care. Once they acted out a United Nations crisis meeting and built a coffin to parade around, to mourn the death of European humanity.

While many mainstream media organisations spoke of refugees only in terms of numbers, refugee.tv set up a Facebook page with videos that reminded us that the people in camps were not just refugees, but artists, craftsmen, poets and chefs. Their videos went viral.

After seven months in a camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, feeling as though much of the world saw them as troublemakers and scroungers, the team behind refugees.tv decided the time had come to remind themselves of who they were before the war and bring some pride, happiness and dignity back to the people in the camp.

They got to work on their show Refugees Got Talent. They made buzzers out of camping lights, got a speaker, found a presenter, made a table for the panel of judges and then rounded up their participants and audience to watch the talent. It often felt weird singing and joking when there was so much to be sad and angry about, but the show was also light relief.

It is not easy living in the refugee camps. Conditions are often far from ideal and definitely not what I would want to end up in if I had just escaped war. But the conditions are not what caused the camp’s residents to become increasingly frustrated and upset. It was the waiting.

Living in the camp is like attending an outdoor music festival, but without the music.

You live in a tent or an isobox, pee in a portaloo and need to adapt to all types of weather. And it feels permanent – nobody tells you when you can leave. Many refugees in Greece have now been moved into hotels, but they are so remote it can leave them feeling isolated, unwanted and unable to mix with society. Europe has failed them in helping them to relocate and they cannot continue their lives and enjoy the human rights they are entitled to until this changes.

During the filming, the most precious moments for me were at the end of each of the talent show rounds. The organisers and participants would gather outside the tent, light shisha, play guitar and sing old songs from back home. Later when I’d look back at the footage, I’d see Mahmoud and Basil looking so lost in the music and so completely happy in that moment, despite everything they’d been through. There was such a vulnerability about them, but in that one moment it felt like they had completely forgotten their pain.

I believe that despite the frustration and protests in the camp, refugees.tv did succeed in its aim of creating some laughter and reigniting hope, dignity and the ability to dream in people. But it was a temporary happiness. And until Europe acts out the policy it speaks of, no real happiness can come to those staying in the camps in Greece.

Mahmoud says in the film that no matter what happens to them in the future, they will always have the talent show. At the very least, I hope their memories of it will always bring them some comfort and remind them of their ability to create lightness in the darkest of times.

Maher, 12, was one of the participants in Refugees Got Talent, demonstrating his football tricks [Al Jazeera]
Maher, 12, was one of the participants in Refugees Got Talent, demonstrating his football tricks [Al Jazeera]