Rosemary Jenkinson’s new play Lives in Translation celebrates the human survival instinct through the story of one woman, a Somali who flees the conflict of her home, yet becomes trapped in a different form of struggle. She becomes suffocated in the bureaucracy of the asylum system and her reliance on translation which is both frustrating and disempowering.
Belfast theatre company Kabosh have a reputation for tackling contemporary social issues and commissioned Jenkinson to write the play exploring asylum seekers.
Despite the doom and gloom, she says that it is “not preachy” and “more about the triumph of the human spirit rather than the complete crushing of it”. The hardest part of writing the play was the research asylum seekers are tired of journalists and not everyone wants to go back into the past to retell their story and relive the often traumatic memories.
However, with the help of a third party and the guarantee of anonymity, Jenkinson met up with a group of Somali asylum seekers and refugees in south Belfast at an Eid celebration and subsequent conversations have informed her new play.
“The past explains why they are here and why they are so desperate. If you look at the title – Lives in Translation – it’s about their words, their testimony of how they left their country and came to be here. The play is a lot about the gaps in translation and the mistranslation.”
As an asylum seeker you are often reliant on your translator to navigate the legal, health and educational processes. Jenkinson discovered from her interviews with Somali women that the translator can often be someone else from your country. Not everyone leaves their own tribe or cultural prejudices at the door leading to instances of unsupportive translators on top of seemingly heartless officials.
Jenkinson describes the asylum system as deliberately complex: some of the Somalis she met were “stuck in the system, and meant to be stuck in it”, some for 15 years or more. “Those obstacles are meant to cut down asylum seekers entering this country.”
The play takes the audience on a journey from Mogadishu to London, across to Dublin and up to Belfast. Three actors play the central asylum seeker and multiple other roles.
Jenkinson herself has experience of one aspect familiar to many refugees and asylum seekers. She explained to me:
“I’ve spent a night in a cell in an immigration detention centre. I’d already been to Palestine six months before, and then I tried to go again, but I was refused entry to Israel at the airport because of ‘national security’, put in a detention centre overnight and deported the next morning. There were so many of us from all different nations stuck in a cell during the night, all leaving at different times. Although I was going home I had a flavour of how you feel, a tiny little cog in a vast machine.”
Topical concerns such as the actions and motivations of private companies who run immigration centres and “make millions out of the misery of asylum seekers” are explored.
A private reading for the Somali community who informed the play was “incredibly moving [and] emotional”.
“They said it was their story. That – as a playwright and a writer who comes in – is one of the best things you can do if they recognise themselves in what you’ve written.”
She hopes that other refugees and people in the asylum process will get the opportunity to see the play during its run in Belfast International Arts Festival, her first time to be showcased alongside other international work in the festival which is celebrating its 55th outing this year.