Disabled Syrian artist Hamzeh Al Hussien talks about how his journey as a refugee shaped his life-affirming new show.
Every refugee’s story is different but not every refugee has the charisma of Hamzeh Al Hussien. He skillfully manages to conjure a vision of a village in Syria, a place with a backdrop of mountains, a river and a waterfall, and with caves “so cold even in summertime”. There are orchards too, where as a young boy he once stole lemons and was shamed by his brother into giving them back.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he says wistfully.
It’s where he lived with his parents, two brothers and three sisters, and lots of animals – his dad’s a farmer – including six companionable dogs that he calls his ‘bodyguards’.
The scene ends and Amy Golding, director of Hamzeh’s new show, Penguin, signals a break in rehearsing – and with memories of an idyllic childhood. Although you wonder how idyllic it can have been for a boy like Hamzeh, born with a physical disability that means he can’t walk like others walk.
Hamzeh confesses he is “a little bit nervous but also excited” at the prospect of sharing his story with audiences, adding: “I just want to get on stage and start telling stories.”
His is an incredible story – one among many in these times of war and displacement but a reminder of the human cost behind the statistics.
Amy, founder of Curious Monkey, which became the North East’s first Theatre Company of Sanctuary in 2019, remembers when Hamzeh and his brother Waseem came to her on the recommendation of their resettlement case worker. Both laugh at the memory of the first drama workshop which the brothers threw themselves into with gusto. “We didn’t understand each other at all but it’s amazing how you can communicate through drama,” says Amy.
Hamzeh, who is 28, remembers the day ten years ago when Syria’s civil war threatened to engulf his village. “There was serious bombing and we had to leave, ten families to a truck. It was a dangerous moment and it was like a nightmare for me.”
He found shelter in the rapidly swelling Za’atari refugee camp, where his mother and sisters remain to this day. His father eventually returned to Syria, as did his eldest brother, who had been working in Lebanon when the villagers fled.
Hamzeh spent six years in the camp, which currently has a population of 80,000 refugees. Life improved for him when he discovered a theatre workshop run by a Spanish charity. “I was sitting far away, watching, but I felt something in my heart telling me: this is something you will really love.”
Due to his disability, he became a priority for resettlement and was finally sent with his brother to the North East, where he did a performance course at Gateshead College.
The show has been put together from his many stories and recollections. “There’s lots of music,” he promises. “I love dancing.”
Looking to the future, Hamzeh would like to set up a charity to support disabled youngsters in the Middle East through creativity. “After the war there will be lots of children in Syria with disabilities. I want to show them they can do things.”