'The Jungle' Tells The Stories Inside A Real Refugee Camp In Northern France

Dec 14, 2018
Originally published on December 14, 2018 9:35 am

Actors Ammar Haj Ahmad and Milan Ghobsheh's journey from London to Brooklyn wasn't easy.

Ahmad and Ghobsheh herald from predominantly Muslim countries whose residents are barred from coming to the U.S. under President Trump's travel ban. Ahmad is from Syria, Ghobsheh from Iran. Both are members of The Jungle cast, a play that received near-universal critical acclaim when it debuted at the Young Vic theater in London.

After seeing the production, a host of cultural, religious and political figures intervened, writing to U.S. immigration officials, urging them to allow the actors to travel to America. Eventually a waiver was granted.

It recently opened in New York. The production has transformed the St. Ann's Warehouse, a performing arts space that sits beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The theater has been turned into a bustling Afghan cafe, modeled on a restaurant situated in the heart of a refugee camp. The refugee camp is based on a real camp located on the outskirts of the French city Calais. That camp — which was nicknamed "the jungle" — stood on an old landfill site before its demolition in 2016.

The camp at its peak housed thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn and unstable nations, including Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and Iraq. A Human Rights Watch report once described conditions at the camp as "like living in hell." But despite the squalor, a bustling multicultural community emerged.

In The Jungle, Ahmad plays the role of the narrator, Safi, in one poignant monologue, he reflects on that diversity. "I could walk from Sudan, through Palestine and Syria, pop into a Pakistani cafe through Oxford Street near Egypt, buy new shoes from the marketplace, Belgian cigarettes from an Iraqi corner shop, through Somalia," he says. He then asks a question that forms a central part of the play: "When does a place become home?"

For Ghobsheh, the jungle refugee camp was his home, though he constantly tried to get out. After fleeing Iran, Ghobsheh lived in the camp for three months as he attempted to reach his intended destination, the United Kingdom. On a clear night, he says, the lights of English coastal cities glistened in the distance, offering hope of a new life abroad. When darkness fell, many of the refugees, including Ghobsheh, risked their lives, hiding away in the back of trucks traveling across the English Channel. "I tried too many times, every day," Ghobsheh tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I tried to jump in the truck, in a freezer truck. It was very cold and it was 12 hours. I made it."

Ammar describes a harrowing detail involving those hiding in trucks and plastic bags. "The moment that they hear that the truck is slowing down, they put the plastic bag and suffocate themselves because the machines that the border agents use is to catch your breath," he says. "So you hold your breath. And some people died doing that."

A fundamental aspect of the production is exposing the audience to these kind of human stories, ensuring that the public is made aware of what's happening on the beaches of the Mediterranean, along borders and in refugee camps.

When asked what he wants American audiences to take away from this piece of theater, Ahmad reflects. "It's about humans, it's about choosing love. Because at one point here, lots of people came from different parts of the world. If we go back to our grandparents, we will all find stories that in our blood there is fear from someone in the family, who ran away from a place to another," he says. "Metaphorically, we're all refugees in different volumes and different intensities."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 2016, French authorities gave notice they were going to demolish a refugee camp in the city of Calais.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE JUNGLE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We do not want to fight the French police.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Eritrea also wishes to relocate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Kurdistan will relocate.

MARTIN: It came to be known as "The Jungle," and that's the name of a new play that opened in New York this week. It was much acclaimed in London. And it's now playing in Brooklyn's St. Ann's theater. Immediately, the audience is thrust into the drama and chaos of life in this makeshift city. Scarring pasts and deeply uncertain futures haunt those who live here. Despite all that, it is a bustling multicultural community. Here's the narrator of the play, a character called Safi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE JUNGLE")

AMMAR HAJ AHMAD: (As Safi) I could walk from Sudan through Palestine and Syria, pop into a Pakistani cafe on Oxford Street near Egypt...

MARTIN: The play is not meant to be a documentary, but the writers weave true experiences into the narrative. Many of the actors are refugees themselves, including Ammar Haj Ahmad, who plays Safi.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE JUNGLE")

AHMAD: (As Safi) ...Before arriving at Salaz (ph) restaurant in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: The theater has been transformed into a replica of that Afghan restaurant. The morning after I saw the play, I met up with Ammar and one of his fellow actors, Milan Ghobsheh. Hes 23 years old. He actually lived in the Jungle after leaving his home in Iran.

MILAN GHOBSHEH: Iran had a bad system, and I couldn't stay in Iran. I had to go. I left my family because of my dream and my future, and that's really hard.

MARTIN: When you're on the stage...

GHOBSHEH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Do you think about your time in the Jungle?

GHOBSHEH: About my past.

MARTIN: Yeah. Or can you shut it out and just be in the play?

GHOBSHEH: No, of course. Yeah. Many times, many times - it's always in my heart.

MARTIN: Does it remind you of the Jungle?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah, yeah, this cafe. All that happens in the Jungle is in the cafe.

MARTIN: Milan lived alone in the jungle for three months. It was tough. Conditions were squalid, the winters bitterly cold. On clear nights, though, refugees could see the lights of the English coastal cities glistening in the distance. It offered hope of a new life in the United Kingdom. So when it got dark, many refugees risked their lives by hiding in trucks trying to cross the English Channel. Ammar describes a harrowing detail.

AHMAD: There are people who would take plastic bags. They don't take anything but plastic bag. And the moment they get - they hear that the truck is slowing down, they put the plastic bag and suffocate themselves because the machines that the border agency use is to catch your breath, right? So you hold your breath for a long time, and some people died doing that.

MARTIN: I then turned to Milan.

How many times did you try? Can you count?

GHOBSHEH: Too many times.

MARTIN: Too many times.

GHOBSHEH: Every day.

MARTIN: How did you get out?

GHOBSHEH: I tried to jump in the truck - in the fridge truck.

MARTIN: Freezer truck.

GHOBSHEH: Yeah. It was very cold - in 12 hours, yeah.

MARTIN: For 12 hours?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah, for 12 hours.

MARTIN: And it worked?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah. We made it.

MARTIN: But - so you get to the U.K., the door opens, and then what?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah. And then the police said, OK, OK. Do you need any help? And I said, no, I'm fine. I'm fine. Thank you. I need food.

MARTIN: Yeah.

GHOBSHEH: Yeah.

MARTIN: There were other people in the camp - foreigners from the U.K. and France, some aid workers with official organizations. Some of them just well-meaning if naive do-gooders.

AHMAD: They want to go and help. But when they want to go and help, they went completely with, like, motivated by their emotions without knowing sometimes the backgrounds of all these people.

MARTIN: And this is a central theme in the play - how the outside world sees, or rather doesn't see, the experience of someone who's left everything behind. This play is about trying to change that, to help people know what's happening on the beaches of the Mediterranean, along borders, in refugee camps. Bringing that message to America turned out to be difficult.

As Syrian and Iranian citizens, both Ammar and Milan are residents of countries barred from the U.S. under President Trump's travel ban. After seeing the production in London, a coalition of celebrities, religious leaders and politicians stepped in. They wrote letters to immigration officials urging them to waive the travel ban. Eventually, they were granted special permission, and they were able to travel to New York.

This is about the European refugee crisis, but the United States has a refugee crisis, especially at our southern border with Mexico. What do you want American audiences - when they watch this play, what do you want them to leave with?

AHMAD: You know, when we used to leave the stage in London, we all wanted to meet the audience. And I meet people who would say, oh, thank you. You broke my heart or I feel guilty, all these things. And actually, I would always say, no, I don't want you to feel this way. Like, what I wanted there from British audience, it's the same here. It's about human. It's about really choosing love.

Because at one point, lots of people here, they came from different parts of the world - refugees. We all have, if we go back to our grandparents, we will find stories that, in our blood, there is fear from someone in the family who ran away from a place to another. Metaphorically, we're all refugees in different volumes and different intensities.

MARTIN: It is the same message his character Safi delivers in his final monologue. He stands alone on the stage and speaks directly to the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE JUNGLE")

AHMAD: (As Safi) Thank you for your hospitality. I hope one day to return to Aleppo. When I do, you're all very welcome. But to those who are our friends who are not with us now, we think of you. We pray for you. We love you. May peace be with you. And Allah grant you safety and comfort. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.