Bolton's Octagon Theatre offers refugees and asylum seekers a warm welcome and opportunities to share their experiences. Deborah Dickinson tells the story.

Photo of female actor on rooftop with church spire behind
A performance of 'Flight' on the rooftops of Bolton

When Elizabeth Newman began her tenure as Artistic Director at the Octagon Theatre in 2015, her vision was to create a people’s theatre for everyone in Bolton. She initiated weekly roundtable meetings to realise this ambition, and it was at one of these that we heard how a colleague had helped a refugee in distress at Bolton station to get a train to London for a court hearing about her right to remain in the UK.

“When I come to the group at the Octagon, I forget all my problems and relax”

We were moved by the plight of this woman, and resolved to provide a safe, inclusive supportive space for people like her at the theatre.

Early experiences

Our journey to becoming a place of safety, hospitality and support for refugees and asylum-seekers began with meeting local organisations. These included the Destitution Project, which aims to provide a safe environment where refugees and asylum seekers, and their families, can find friendship, food and practical help.

I met some of the women who go there once a week to learn English, and decided to set up a drama group for them as a safe place for stories and self-expression. The group, which has steadily grown in size, recently performed at Bolton’s City of Sanctuary AGM.

Refugees in Bolton come from places including Syria, Sudan, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many have fled war and conflict and arrive with nothing but the clothes they are wearing. When they get to England, they have to navigate a new culture, a new language and new systems for accessing services, as well as coping with the trauma of their circumstances.

One woman left Albania five years ago to come to England with her son to seek asylum. They are still waiting to hear whether they have the right to remain. They live in a small flat in Bolton on £75.50 per week. She is a member of the women’s drama group and her son is in one of the youth theatre groups. The mother says: “When I come to the group at the Octagon, I forget all my problems and relax.”

Sanctuary status

In May, the theatre was awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status by the City of Sanctuary organisation. This movement began in 2005 in Sheffield, and two years later, with the support of Sheffield City Council and over 70 local community organisations, Sheffield became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary - indicating that it takes pride in the welcome it offers to people in need of safety.

Since then, City of Sanctuary UK, the umbrella organisation for the movement, has supported the development of a network of groups that includes villages, towns, cities and regions, all engaging in a wide range of activities intended to welcome people seeking sanctuary.

Our staff have embraced being a Theatre of Sanctuary. They have all had awareness training, and have collectively initiated outreach projects including a drama programme for young refugees, and performances to help the local community develop a better understanding of the refugee experience.

One of the plays we have staged is ‘Flight’, a new work by Nuzhat Ali that explores the dilemma of a man facing the relentless destruction of his city, his home and his family in Syria. His 14-year-old daughter is all he has left, and he makes the heart-breaking decision that they will leave their home and escape to Europe. It was staged on the rooftops of Bolton as part of our REVEAL Festival earlier this year, and will go on to be performed nationally in 2019.

We will continue to develop links and partnerships with other organisations that work to support refugees and asylum seekers, and will do our utmost to welcome, support and provide opportunities for them.

Deborah Dickinson is Creative Producer at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

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