'The Jungle' Tells The Stories Inside A Real Refugee Camp In Northern France A makeshift city full of refugees is the scene for the new off-Broadway play The Jungle. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with two of its actors, Ammar Haj Ahmad and Milan Ghobsheh.

'The Jungle' Tells The Stories Inside A Real Refugee Camp In Northern France

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In 2016, French authorities gave notice they were going to demolish a refugee camp in the city of Calais.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) We do not want to fight the French police.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Eritrea also wishes to relocate.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Kurdistan will relocate.

MARTIN: It came to be known as "The Jungle," and that's the name of a new play that opened in New York this week. It was much acclaimed in London. And it's now playing in Brooklyn's St. Ann's theater. Immediately, the audience is thrust into the drama and chaos of life in this makeshift city. Scarring pasts and deeply uncertain futures haunt those who live here. Despite all that, it is a bustling multicultural community. Here's the narrator of the play, a character called Safi.


AMMAR HAJ AHMAD: (As Safi) I could walk from Sudan through Palestine and Syria, pop into a Pakistani cafe on Oxford Street near Egypt...

MARTIN: The play is not meant to be a documentary, but the writers weave true experiences into the narrative. Many of the actors are refugees themselves, including Ammar Haj Ahmad, who plays Safi.


AHMAD: (As Safi) ...Before arriving at Salaz (ph) restaurant in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: The theater has been transformed into a replica of that Afghan restaurant. The morning after I saw the play, I met up with Ammar and one of his fellow actors, Milan Ghobsheh. Hes 23 years old. He actually lived in the Jungle after leaving his home in Iran.

MILAN GHOBSHEH: Iran had a bad system, and I couldn't stay in Iran. I had to go. I left my family because of my dream and my future, and that's really hard.

MARTIN: When you're on the stage...


MARTIN: ...Do you think about your time in the Jungle?

GHOBSHEH: About my past.

MARTIN: Yeah. Or can you shut it out and just be in the play?

GHOBSHEH: No, of course. Yeah. Many times, many times - it's always in my heart.

MARTIN: Does it remind you of the Jungle?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah, yeah, this cafe. All that happens in the Jungle is in the cafe.

MARTIN: Milan lived alone in the jungle for three months. It was tough. Conditions were squalid, the winters bitterly cold. On clear nights, though, refugees could see the lights of the English coastal cities glistening in the distance. It offered hope of a new life in the United Kingdom. So when it got dark, many refugees risked their lives by hiding in trucks trying to cross the English Channel. Ammar describes a harrowing detail.

AHMAD: There are people who would take plastic bags. They don't take anything but plastic bag. And the moment they get - they hear that the truck is slowing down, they put the plastic bag and suffocate themselves because the machines that the border agency use is to catch your breath, right? So you hold your breath for a long time, and some people died doing that.

MARTIN: I then turned to Milan.

How many times did you try? Can you count?

GHOBSHEH: Too many times.

MARTIN: Too many times.

GHOBSHEH: Every day.

MARTIN: How did you get out?

GHOBSHEH: I tried to jump in the truck - in the fridge truck.

MARTIN: Freezer truck.

GHOBSHEH: Yeah. It was very cold - in 12 hours, yeah.

MARTIN: For 12 hours?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah, for 12 hours.

MARTIN: And it worked?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah. We made it.

MARTIN: But - so you get to the U.K., the door opens, and then what?

GHOBSHEH: Yeah. And then the police said, OK, OK. Do you need any help? And I said, no, I'm fine. I'm fine. Thank you. I need food.



MARTIN: There were other people in the camp - foreigners from the U.K. and France, some aid workers with official organizations. Some of them just well-meaning if naive do-gooders.

AHMAD: They want to go and help. But when they want to go and help, they went completely with, like, motivated by their emotions without knowing sometimes the backgrounds of all these people.

MARTIN: And this is a central theme in the play - how the outside world sees, or rather doesn't see, the experience of someone who's left everything behind. This play is about trying to change that, to help people know what's happening on the beaches of the Mediterranean, along borders, in refugee camps. Bringing that message to America turned out to be difficult.

As Syrian and Iranian citizens, both Ammar and Milan are residents of countries barred from the U.S. under President Trump's travel ban. After seeing the production in London, a coalition of celebrities, religious leaders and politicians stepped in. They wrote letters to immigration officials urging them to waive the travel ban. Eventually, they were granted special permission, and they were able to travel to New York.

This is about the European refugee crisis, but the United States has a refugee crisis, especially at our southern border with Mexico. What do you want American audiences - when they watch this play, what do you want them to leave with?

AHMAD: You know, when we used to leave the stage in London, we all wanted to meet the audience. And I meet people who would say, oh, thank you. You broke my heart or I feel guilty, all these things. And actually, I would always say, no, I don't want you to feel this way. Like, what I wanted there from British audience, it's the same here. It's about human. It's about really choosing love.

Because at one point, lots of people here, they came from different parts of the world - refugees. We all have, if we go back to our grandparents, we will find stories that, in our blood, there is fear from someone in the family who ran away from a place to another. Metaphorically, we're all refugees in different volumes and different intensities.

MARTIN: It is the same message his character Safi delivers in his final monologue. He stands alone on the stage and speaks directly to the audience.


AHMAD: (As Safi) Thank you for your hospitality. I hope one day to return to Aleppo. When I do, you're all very welcome. But to those who are our friends who are not with us now, we think of you. We pray for you. We love you. May peace be with you. And Allah grant you safety and comfort.

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