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Child refugees: Bringing their story to life

POLITICAL POET: Benjamin Zephaniah

TWO FOR the price of one deals are often pretty appealing. And that’s exactly what audiences will get from West Yorkshire Playhouse with their current production, Refugee Boy.

The play brings together the work of two of the UK’s most prolific poets; Lemn Sissay, who has adapted Benjamin Zephaniah’s novel of the same name for the stage. 

The pairing of these two literary giants conjures up images of passionate brainstorming sessions between the two, as well as intense rehearsal sessions. But Zephaniah admits the project was less of a collaboration and more of an initially reluctant agreement from him to let Sissay breathe new life into his work.

“When West Yorkshire Playhouse approached me and asked if I'd write the novel as a play, I said no because I had too many other things on my plate at the time,” Zephaniah explains.

“Also, I'm very precious about my characters, so I thought it would be a better idea to have somebody else adapt the novel. I wanted to give an up and coming writer the opportunity to take this novel, adapt it and make a name for themselves.”

He continued: “But then the theatre contacted me and said, 'we've got Lemn Sissay'. I know Lemn really well, he's a good friend of mine – so I was like, 'what do we want him for? He's established.' I wanted to give the opportunity to a new writer.

But I spoke to Lemn and he was like, 'Benjamin, this is my story – I've got to do this.' I'd never thought about it like that, but he [Sissay] was left here [in the UK] by his parents, who went home to Ethiopia, where there was war at the time. So he was really able to connect with the story. That's how he came on board.”

Zephaniah explains that he penned his gripping novel after seeing large numbers of refugees arriving in east London, where he was living at the time.

“I'm not talking about immigrants, but people who were fleeing war or persecution,” he says. “The media's take on it was always very negative; making it sound like these people were scroungers or bogus asylum seekers. But the people who were around me could show me their scars. 

“In addition to that, I met this boy who had watched his parents being killed right in front of him. It occurred to me that when we hear about refugees, we don't really hear about the experiences of the children involved. That's what led me to write Refugee Boy.”


LEAD ROLE: Actor Fisayo Akinade stars as Alem in Refugee Boy

The novel tells the story of Alem; a young boy in London with his father on the best holiday he has ever had. Only then, the unthinkable happens; overnight, he has become a refugee. As a violent civil war rages back home, Alem’s Ethiopian father and Eritrean mother make the heartbreaking decision to leave him in London, on his own but hopefully safe at last. 

Guided by the Refugee Council and social services, Alem’s new life brings with it new challenges. But amidst this turmoil, Alem is determine to take control, in order to transcend his refugee label.

Zephaniah admits that he has an affinity with young people. Having worked extensively with children in east London, introducing them to the joys of poetry, and having penned several books for young people, the Birmingham-born writer and musician – celebrated for pioneering dub poetry in Britain – feels that youngsters often go unheard.

“We were all young once and it always amazes me how quickly we forget that. It's like we get to 25 then start talking about 'the kids of today.' It's not acceptable to say 'I hate black people' or 'I hate white people' or 'I hate gay people', but if you say 'I hate kids', people laugh. I find that outrageous. When I hear arguments between kids and adults, I tend to really listen to what the kids have to say.”

So Zephaniah doesn’t think ‘the kids of today’ could do with a bit more discipline?

“I think we all need to be more disciplined. When I was younger, my dad beat me  – that just made me beat my girlfriend. Violence begets violence. So I think we all need to be more disciplined.”

Though he’s well known for expressing his thoughts through poetry and performance, Zephaniah is equally vocal when it comes to speaking out as a campaigner, spending much of his time working with human rights, animal rights and other political organisations.


RETELLING THE STORY: Lemn Sissay has adapted Zephaniah’s novel Refugee Boy for the stage

But for many, he is best known for his decision to publicly reject his OBE (Order of the British Empire) back in 2003. Having spent years fighting against the legacy of the British monarchy, colonial brutality and slavery, (issues that were the very subject of his 2001 poem Bought and Sold, which contains the lines, ‘It's not censors or dictators that are cutting up our art/ the lure of meeting royalty/ and touching high society/ is damping creativity and eating at our heart), Zephaniah says that rejecting the OBE was simply a case of “being true to myself”.

But did his decision cost him any friends or poetic peers, or cause him to be shunned by folks in the literary world who may have branded him a troublemaker?

“No, not at all. In fact it earned me more respect. I'm always careful talking about the OBE, because some people at the time thought it was a publicity stunt. But it was never that. I rejected it because it represents empire and I was fighting against empire. I don't want to be associated with the club that enslaved my people. And having rejected it, I've had so many people commending me for doing it. 

“Some people called me brave and I always tell them I'm not brave, I was just being true to myself. Even now, I still get letters, some from people who accepted OBEs, saying 'I didn't know how to refuse it'. Or others say 'I had pressure from my mum because she really wanted to go to Buckingham Palace!' But for me, it was just about being true to myself.”

In addition, Zephaniah says that rejecting the OBE earned him more respect from the young people he worked with at the time, as it showed them he wasn’t willing to tow the line or bow to mainstream pressure. 

“On a grass roots level, when it comes to working with kids, it gave me a lot more credibility. They were like, 'oh, you're really not working with us for the money or to join the establishment, or to further your personal career. You're doing this because this is what you love,” he reveals. 

“On the day that I should have received the OBE, I was at a youth centre in east London. I made a point of being with the kids I love, working with them at the youth centre. The kids were able to see from that that I've got no ulterior motives. They saw that even though I do things on mainstream telly, I've never really sold out,” says the dub poet as he outlines his experience after rejecting the award from the monarchy.

“I've been offered to do Big Brother twice, I've been offered to go in the jungle [for I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!] and I've said no every time because that has nothing to do with my creativity. It has nothing to do with me commenting on the world or trying to help my people.”

Refugee Boy is at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Playhouse Square, Quarry Hill, Leeds LS2 until March 30. For more information visit wyp.org.uk

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