By Cathy Salit

Last month I told you a bit about Performing the World (PTW), the international conference of performance activists co-sponsored by the East Side Institute, and the All Stars Project in NYC. I shared a little of the amazingly creative and “mind-blowing” work of Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia.

Now I want to introduce you to Elena Dina Boukouvala, who in my opinion, also does “mind blowing” work. Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, she spent much of her adult life in London, UK, and has worked as a performance activist, drama therapist and developmental psychologist in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Earlier this year she returned to her hometown in Greece to, as she puts it, “play and work” with displaced children and young people.

The situation she came back to in Greece can only be described as dire. As has been widely reported, after the European Union effectively cut off access to most of Europe in March 2016 for most migrants/refugees from the Middle East, Greece has become a sort of limbo in which as many as 60,000 people are living in squalid conditions in refugee camps on the mainland and on Greek islands near Turkey. 

At PTW, Elena and several of her colleagues from Serbia, Greece, the US and Syria presented a workshop called “Creating New Performances with the Refugee Crisis.” I was deeply moved to learn of their recent work in refugee camps in Thessaloniki and Lesbos, Greece, leading play workshops with children, support groups for women, and organizing multicultural performance events and educational trips in the community.

Elena described the impetus for this work; it started “as a response to the leadership of the young people in the camps. Having conversations with them, we worked together to develop performance activities engaging both local and refugee communities and creating opportunities for dialogue and play, especially between people who might have not met otherwise.” Elena said they began with no plan per se, but they improvised, responded to the needs and desires of the refugees, and together figured out what to do together. She shared several stories of this work.

In the camps of Thessaloniki, Elena worked with “Solidarity Educators,” a group of independent volunteers, and together they organized play and art events with the children in the camps. Then, joined by other grassroots organizers, they staged a series of “playground events” in an open theatre in the middle of the city, in which both refugee and local families came together to play.

This summer, at the refugee camp of Pikpa on Lesbos, Elena collaborated with Mosaic Center, a support center that builds community with refugees and locals offering language courses and performance classes open to everyone. They organized a group for women, with participants from Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Eritrea, Maroko, Denmark and Greece. When the organizers asked the women what they wanted to do they said that they would like to create an environment of a spa in the camp, which they set up in a Greek orthodox church. They polished each other’s nails, drew, danced and created jewelry in the church. The group started with six women; after two weeks it was 16.

On Lesbos, Elena met Sham, a 19-year-old student who had fled Pakistan because a gang that killed his brother threatened to kill him as well. To save his life, his family sold their animals to pay the more than €3,000 it took to get him to Europe. Along the way, Sham was kidnapped and tortured, and it took more money to get him released. When he finally arrived at the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, procedures to have him deported began immediately. 

In response Sham started writing poems addressed to Europe: I have a fallen in love only to be said that Europe is in love with someone else. What is this Europe? Look at me! Don’t you love Sham?’

When Sham’s request for asylum was denied, Elena and other performance activists built on Sham’s poetry to develop an interactive performance exhibition, where people from different walks of life came together to create art in response to the refugee crisis. The exhibition has traveled to Berlin, Belgrade, New York, and is making its way across Europe, and now Sham’s dialogue with Europe has now been joined by others.

I am very moved by this work. These aren’t flashy stories, and they don’t all have bright and happy endings. I believe that as of this writing, Sham is still waiting in a sort of purgatory, hanging on until his deportation is final. The playground events were not allowed to remain inside the city, and families in the camps are still awaiting an uncertain future. But these are stories about people coming together, and through performance, poetry, and play, creating community, some sense of normalcy, and possibility. Elena, and the thousands of performance activists across the globe that Performing the World has brought together over the years are learning from each other, sharing their work and ideas, providing hope, emotional support, best practices and resources to create and perform a new world, even when it seems harder than ever.

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Cathy Salit is a performer and co-founder of Performance of a Lifetime. Her book, Performance Breakthrough: A Radical Approach to Success at Work (Hachette Books) is on sale everywhere books are sold.

Follow her on Twitter: @CathySalit

Learn more about Performance of a Lifetime

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