One of the numerous storylines in Welsh National Opera’s new opera, Migrations, is The English Lesson. Written by Sarah Woods, this piece is set in a classroom at a refugee centre in the UK in 2019, where, as the title implies, an English lesson is being held. It focuses in on the story of the journeys of refugees Kadra, Adham and Emelda.
An all too realistic tale of a class of refugees from around the world, learning basic English in order to get by in their new life. Sarah manages to bring individuality to the group. Whether it is a mother who lost her children as they escaped Sudan; or a Syrian boy of 16 who had to flee his home, leaving his family, to avoid being conscripted; or a schoolteacher from Eritrea, attacked for her beliefs. These stories are revealed as they learn to introduce themselves, to say who, or what, they once were. The stories reflect those we see nightly in the news or in the morning’s papers. It is the stand-alone story at the centre of act one and gives voice to such lives – enabling us to recognise them as people, we can imagine their losses, and feel their pain.
Free English lessons are often run by charities and organisations to support those new to a country. Various colleges and online resources also offer classes to help people integrate into society in a new country (although not necessarily free). The idea for this strand of the opera came following a visit to Oasis in Cardiff, a centre for those seeking refuge and asylum. As Sarah explained
‘Having worked on a number of projects exploring what it is to be a refugee and through those made a number of friends who have lived experience of being a refugee or asylum seeker, this was a natural choice for me.
I was very moved, both by the range of people in the room – and the things people were learning to ask and answer questions about. Every question felt so loaded, so impossible to answer. But everyone was answering them and trying hard to learn.’
The English Lesson doesn’t so much highlight how fluency is the key to not only finding work or studying in a new country, in overcoming loneliness and feelings of isolation, of being a part of the community, but also in breaking down the brand ‘refugee’ to the individuals so often hidden beneath it. As Abdul Shayek, director of the piece, puts it in personal terms: ‘My parents’ stories are important and necessary, like the stories of millions of others, it is important that as many people as possible hear these stories and ultimately understand why people make these choices.’
Find out more about Kadra, Adham and Emelda and the other people taking part in The English Lesson, at a performance of Migrations this Autumn in Cardiff, Llandudno, Plymouth, Birmingham or Southampton.