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Edmonton couple capture Syrian refugee crisis in harrowing new play


Aksam Alyousef and Amena Shehab have three children. They call Hagar — a new play exploring a mother’s anguish during the Syrian refugee crisis — their fourth child.

Alyousef wrote and produced the play, which stars Shehab as a Syrian woman who tries to escape Aleppo and take her one-year-old son to Europe.

The play is not autobiographical but contains parts of stories from refugee families who have fled Syria.

Shehab came here as a refugee in 2012 with her children. Her husband joined the family in 2016.

The character she plays, Hagar, is a dreamer who lives in Aleppo during the Syrian Civil War. Deserted by her husband and betrayed by a smuggler, she’s in a vulnerable position but willing to do almost anything to give her son a better life.

“I wanted to focus on her tragedy,” Alyousef said Monday in an interview with CBC’s Radio Active. 

An invisible line divides the stage between the past and the present and Hagar moves between time periods as she shares her story.

Shehab said she cried while trying to memorize her lines and struggled to inhabit the role, up until the last rehearsal.

“Some words just hit me inside — as a woman, as a mom, as a person who has lost a country,” she said.

Alyousef said he wrote the play with a Canadian audience in mind.

Playwright Aksam Alyousef wrote Hagar, which premieres Friday at the ATB Financial Arts Barns in Edmonton. (Ray Brickwood)

He has called it a “thank-you letter to Canadians” but also a portrait of refugees’ reality.

Director Morgan Norwich said she thinks the story will resonate with parents.

“We hear about the numbers of refugees, but when we distil it down to the story of one mother, I think it adds a very immediate human response and understanding,” she said.

Hagar premieres Friday at 7:30 p.m.at the ATB Financial Arts Barns in Edmonton and runs until June 8. Tickets are $22 for adults and $12 for students and seniors.

Arabic performances, sponsored by the Syrian Cultural Heritage Association, are scheduled for Sunday afternoon and the evening of June 8.

Shehab said she hopes audience members put themselves in the shoes of parents who have gone through struggles like Hagar’s.

“You can’t ignore these stories, she said.



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