A Desperate Journey, Seeking Hope

Even in times of desperation, you can find hope. This is a story of hope seekers around the world — those who you call “refugees.”

By Reem Alsayyah

Lab Fellows Reem Alsayyah and Devika Ranjan after a performance of “Desperate Journey.”

Desperate Journeys — a simulation by Empathy Action a charity based in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent — written by Hilary Sanders and Christopher Hix, and directed by Hillary Sanders. This piece takes the audience through a “desperate journey” with a Syrian family. On the way they meet other refugees from other countries in the middle of other desperate journeys, and each one of them has his own story, own agony and own reason to leave home.

The gripping story describes the impossible choices that every refugee had to make: to risk staying home in the middle of armed conflict, or to risk their life and run with no safe route, no one to trust, and no direction to go.
The audience is directed to run, but once they make it to the refugee camp they learn that even if they have their life, what happens there is not like living. They meet other refugees from different countries, hear their sad stories and the bad things about living in camps, when another impossible choice appears: do they stay in camps where they will be nothing more than a registered number, have no work or education, and the minimum of everything to live with, or risk their life again and take the death boats to go very far away from home trying to find a better life in Europe.

The audience finds themselves then trapped in a small rubber boat, tricked by the smugglers after they paid them for a larger boat, and listening to another story about a mother lost her baby girl after making the same journey they’re doing now.

Reaching Europe might be the happiest moment during the simulation, but all the dreams quickly fade out after they find that all the borders have been closed in their faces — their only chance is to apply for the EU relocation scheme where they try to choose which country they want to apply for. A few lucky people make it, but the poor Syrian family gets split up, and the simulation ends with this bittersweet conclusion.

The debrief after the play was my favorite part, hearing the audience’s reactions and feedback was very moving, especially for me, because I’m a refugee myself, and helped to write this play. People said they felt terrified, powerlessness, hopelessness — that they had to make impossible choices. The reaction that most moved me was when a woman said that she felt so tired — that is how I felt years ago. Being a refugee is very tiring, physically and mentally.

Finding that the participants felt what I had, assured me that the simulation had captured the experience, but I knew that there was still a need for a dose of reality.

So I shared my own personal story with the participants, which was indeed very tiring and emotional for me, but I knew it was definitely worth it. I wanted everyone at the simulation to understand that their experience was not far away from the truth, but that the truth is even worse. Behind the statistics there are real people, just like audience members, who were forced to leave their precious homeland, who literally had to “ run for their life.”

I spoke about my sister who journeyed by boat and told the audience about how she was so near to dying with her family in the sea — that was hard for the people to hear, indeed, but it was very important, otherwise they’ll go back to their homes feeling that they have “a nice experience” rather than a true one.

The most amazing thing about Desperate Journeys was the team behind it, a group of volunteers, in sorting, helping, action, and making this marvelous simulation, I can’t forgot how happy they were with the work they did, and I never thought that there would come a day when I would teach a group of amazing women how to wear Hijabs, or how to look like a Syrian. I was very happy to hear them speaking beautifully about my homeland and its culture, while I played a role of a Sudanese woman stuck in the refugee camp, which was very special, and I felt so happy to do this part

Desperate Journeys was indeed one of the best experiences I ever had, maybe it was painful for some people, but it is in the end a simulation of the real life of the real refugees, maybe they had to do a desperate journey, but indeed they are the true hope seekers.


Reem Alsayyah was born in Damascus, Syria as the third of eight children. She studied networking engineering at the University, and in 2012, with only three exams left until graduation, Reem was forced to flee Damascus and was unable to complete her degree. The War in Syria forced Reem and her family to cross the border into Jordan and to take on a new name: “refugee.” In Amman, she worked as a secretary and an interpreter. She also volunteered at UNICEF and on many projects supporting refugees (primarily children and women). Her first experience in theater was when she participated the workshop and performance of Syria: The Trojan Women. Although the cast was denied visas to perform at Georgetown University and Columbia University in 2014, she still participated and shared her story via Skype from Amman. The cast has performed the play in Switzerland and the UK (under its new name The Queens of Syria) in a critically-celebrated tour that included stops at the Young Vic and Edinburgh, and she has had the opportunity to share how the war impacted her life with thousands of audience members. She served as the lead coordinator for an Arabic version of Oliver by Lionel Bart, performed by children refugees from Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. Currently, Reem is studying BIT online at Amity University in the United Kingdom after receiving a scholarship from the European Union and British Council, and hopes to continue to work with refugee children in theater.

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More from Reem: “The ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ Question that Changed my Life

The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics

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Harnessing the power of performance to humanize global politics. Website: https://globallab.georgetown.edu

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