Villains, victims, untold stories of refugees and officials


Finding individuals among masses of migrants: A refugee and his tormentor in an Australian refugee detention centre in the play “When Swallows Cry”

WHEREVER they live today, most Jews have family memories of forebears arriving in a new country as immigrants or refugees after escaping from places such as Nazi Germany or Eastern Europe where they would be killed or persecuted if they stayed. The Jewish psyche instinctively understands a refugee’s feelings when a country’s doors are closed to him because of colour or religion.

A famous South African incident is the Stuttgart, a ship which arrived in Cape Town in October 1936 with 537 German Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. It prompted displays of Afrikaner hatred for Jews by the anti-Semitic Greyshirts organisation who protested their arrival, saying Jews were unassimilable, of questionable morality and a threat to Afrikaners. Fortunately, the refugees managed to disembark.

Today’s flood of refugees fleeing war-torn Middle Eastern or African states pose dilemmas for many countries which are leery of granting them entry, as Islamist terrorism shakes the world. Last Friday US President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the United States, echoing populist sentiments among Americans.

Who are the refugees and the immigration officials implementing the order? The many human faces of the conundrum are portrayed powerfully in a play currently on at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre called “When Swallows Cry”, by playwright Mike van Graan.

In the opening vignette set in Somalia, the son of a white Canadian mining magnate at whose mine near Mogadishu striking workers were killed, has gone there as a volunteer teacher to help heal the damage people such as his father have caused. The father and others had used their money to ensure the country was run by a tyrant helpful to them. Civil war rages, with terrified people trying to flee. The teacher is held hostage and beaten by Muslim insurgents who threaten to turn him over to radical Islamist group Boko Haram to get a ransom to rebuild a devastated village. The Canadian’s capturer films him with a cellphone and posts it on Facebook so his friends and relatives back home will see him describing the devastation ruthless colonialists have wrought.

The second scene is an American immigration entry point, where a distraught Muslim Somalian with a valid visa is being interrogated. Officials find a Koran in his baggage and demand to know what he intends doing in America. On their data-base they find his family name is identical to someone listed as a terrorist threat. He says he doesn’t know the man, pleading to be allowed admission, promising that all he wants is to make a safe new life away from his blood-soaked country. After they decide to put him on a plane back to Somalia, he grabs an official’s gun and shoots himself in the head, choosing to die rather than go back.

The third vignette, a harsh refugee detention camp in Australia, shows two black Zimbabweans who came on a leaky boat after walking from a devastated Zimbabwe to Kenya. Their family members died en route. A white Australian officer beats them mercilessly. They plead to be allowed in, but the assault becomes more ruthless. The officer loses his restraint and screams about his family who had been white farmers in Zimbabwe and whose land was violently seized, forcing them to flee. In uncontrollable rage he shoots the refugees.

Van Graan graphically depicts how there are villains, victims and untold stories on all sides. In art, as in life, people cannot be tarred haphazardly with the same brush like a homogeneous mob. The Greyshirts tried to do that with the Stuttgart’s Jews. Trump’s sledgehammer approach is doing it with Muslims and will only cause more hatred.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )

  • For a review of “When Swallows Cry” click here

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