Refuge in a Climate Context

Since 2000, the UN has observed World Refugee Day on June 20 to raise awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. As part of my own World Refugee Day observance, I’m reflecting on Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda’s recent production Refuge.

I had the opportunity to dramaturgically support Blessed Unrest in their latest production, and even more, am eager to write about their piece in the context of the climate crisis. Refuge is described via Blessed Unrest’s website:

Blessed Unrest teams up with Teatri Oda from Kosovo and musicians from Metropolitan Klezmer for this world-premiere play based on real events in which thousands of Jewish World War II refugees were harbored by families in Albania, most of them practicing Muslims. Despite Nazi occupation, no Jews were taken to concentration camps from Albania, and it was the only country in Europe with more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning.

Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, Nancy McArthur, and Eshref Durmishi in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

Presented at Baruch Performing Arts Center in New York City, Refuge starts with two women running toward each other and embracing centerstage. These women, one Albanian and one American, tie us to modern day as the actors who play these contemporary characters transform back in time to two distinct moments in history: 1940s Poland and 1990s Kosova.

In 1940s Poland, a Jewish family leaves their home to escape the Holocaust. In 1990s Kosova, an Albanian family flees persecution from the former Yugoslavia. Refuge sets up these two narratives, and we see how the stories intertwine. The Jewish family journeys through Europe, intending to catch a ship to the United States before the Nazis spread further. This family meets a Muslim-Catholic family in Albania who takes them in for as long as necessary. Based on actual events, the Albanian family treats the Jewish family as their own, helping them fit into Albanian culture to protect from any Nazi suspicions.

Albanians practice Besa, an ethical code of honor meaning “to keep the promise.” In this way – according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – “the Albanians went out of their way to provide assistance…These acts originated from compassion, loving-kindness and a desire to help those in need, even those of another faith or origin.” Later in the play, we realize that the daughter of the Albanian family in the 1940s is the grandmother of the 1990s family, and she is still trying to reconnect with the Jewish daughter, through written-yet-unreturned letters.

Refuge illustrates Besa through these fictional families, telling a story not often heard. Through invigorating music, rigorous movement, humorous and heartfelt text, Refuge brings Besa to life for a new audience. The play lays out the problems, especially what it means to be displaced and to relocate home, but it does not dwell on the hardships. Instead, Blessed Unrest and Teatri Oda use true stories from the past to demonstrate how the world could be: namely, more loving. The Albanian family, like many real Albanians during World War II, set aside religious and cultural differences, and not only welcomed strangers into their homes, but treated them as family.

Ilire Vinca, Eshref Durmishi, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Nancy McArthur in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

We need more plays like Refuge, especially in the context of climate chaos. People, populations of entire countries, have had to move from one place to another due to environmental hardship, and such migrations will only increase. Examples include Houston, Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, and the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea. While Refuge is clearly talking about refugees – people fleeing their home because of persecution – there are questions around the term “refugee” as related to climate change. The UN is careful to distinguish climate migrants from refugees, enumerating aspects that “define human mobility in the context of climate change and environmental degradation” including the aspect that creating a “refugee status for climate change related reasons…can lead to the exclusion of categories of people who are in need of protection.” Nonetheless, we’re talking about people on the move, some needing to completely reframe what and where home is. Refuge reminds me that “home” isn’t always a physical place; home is where my family is.

At the end of the play, we’re back in modern times and the Jewish daughter recounts one of her letters to the Albanian daughter: “I have children now, Tana. I have a granddaughter. She exists because of you and your family.” The Jewish daughter recognizes her survival as a direct result of Tana’s family, the Albanian’s choice to open their home to strangers for the duration of a world war. Tana responds: “I am just a person.” This line, a simple reminder, strikes me every time. How will each of us as individuals move through the world? How will we work together to build a better world? In whatever ways we yield our collective power, we must hold space for those already seeking, and who will seek, refuge. We are each just people, but together we can change the course of history, to a more equitable and just world for us all.

Eshref Durmishi, Ilire Vinca, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Daniela Markaj in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.

There’s More
Follow Blessed Unrest & Teatri Oda as they bring Refuge to Europe in the coming year.
Engage with advocacy organizations like The Accompany Project and Refugees Welcome to Dinner.

(Top Image: Ilire Vinca, Eshref Durmishi, Nancy McArthur, Perri Yaniv, Becca Schneider, and Daniela Markaj in Refuge. Photo by Maria Baranova.)

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, Superhero Clubhouse, and Blessed Unrest. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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