‘Syrian students are just like you and me’
In the play, writer and actor George Tobal weaves intense protest scenes through friendly conversations over falafel and a musical intermezzo featuring Justin Bieber. ‘Children of Aleppo’ shows views of the Syrian revolution from within: there is absurdity, incredulity, sorrow – but also humour. ‘I wanted to show that Syrian students are people like you and me. What happened to them can happen to anyone.’
The performance means a lot to Tobal, who hails from Syria himself. ‘I felt a great urge to do justice to the students’ stories. They are their true stories, and they told them to me personally.’
Tobal has wanted to write a play about Syria for a long time, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. ‘When people were fleeing the country because of the civil war in 2015, I asked Syrian students if they would participate in the resistance again. I was surprised to hear many say that they wouldn’t, that it wasn’t worth the damage. I thought that was peculiar.’
This gave him the idea to centre his play in the themes of revolution and regret. Tobal took twenty hours of interviews with refugee students, and turned them into a monologue. He tells the stories of three different students who protested for freedom in Syria.
It wasn’t easy: ‘They were really painful stories, full of misery. But you can’t just change the channel: you have to listen to everything.’
The performance will celebrate the seventieth anniversary of UAF, the Foundation for Refugee Students. Then the play will go on tour, visiting fifteen universities of applied sciences and research universities, including the RUG. The foundation wants to raise awareness of the seven hundred refugee students from Syria who are currently studying in the Netherlands.
Was it worth it?
Salem Ismaiel fled from Damascus to the Netherlands in 2013. He now studies computing science at the RUG. He thinks the theme of the play is very relevant. ‘Whether the revolution was worth it is often a point of discussion in my social circle. One of my friends says it wasn’t. He feels we were better off before, even if the regime was strict. I do think the revolution was valuable. There is nothing more important than personal freedom and freedom of speech.’
Ismaiel feels it’s important to raise awareness of Syrian students. ‘I think it’s beautiful that Tobal made a play about student refugees.’ He would like students to be educated about the difficult situation in Syria, but also of the challenges refugee students face by having to start a programme at a Dutch institute without knowing the language. ‘I’ve talked to my Dutch friends about it, and they think it’s remarkable what I’ve done.’
But not all students understand. Ismaiel: ‘Sometimes they’ll ask me what I’m doing here, and it turns out they don’t know very much about the situation in Syria. They do respond respectfully when I tell my story. But it would be better if they already knew enough to understand the situation Syrian students are in.’
Lost in your own world
Tobal would be pleased if his play also managed to raise awareness: ‘I was a student myself so I know it’s easy to get lost in your own world and forget that there are other things going as well.’
He feels it’s important that students are aware of world events. ‘Students are the next generation and in charge of change. Old people aren’t inspiring; your fellow students, like these refugees, are. I don’t need my play to cause a revolution, but I’d love to raise awareness.’
But Tobal’s first priority is putting on a performance that touches people. ‘I don’t want to turn the play into propaganda. I want to make sure I bring across the students’ stories: it’s a great opportunity to introduce the audience to the stories of Syrian students.’
‘Children of Aleppo’ will be performed at cultural student centre Usva (Munnekeholm 10) on 7 November at 8.30 p.m. The play will be in Dutch