Ensuring that people seeking asylum are welcome at art events is an important part of Arts Together’s work. We thought we’d share a beautiful article Emma Crossley wrote for the programme accompanying Opera North’s new production of The Greek Passion. Emma manages Arts Together partner Meeting Point, an Armley-based organisation which provide practical and emotional support to Refugees and Asylum Seekers.
A Face to the Stranger
By Emma Crossley
Although Bohuslav Martinů’s agonising drama The Greek Passion was written more than 60 years ago, it is as much a tale for today as it was in post-war Europe. It is an opera about migration, about society’s rejection of the destitute and the desperate when they arrive at our gates for help, about the manipulation of society by those in authority. It’s also about compassion, humility and, ultimately, tragedy.
Intertwined with the Easter story, the passion tale of Christ is almost relived in Lycovrissi, an ordinary Greek village suddenly faced with the needs of a group of starving refugees on its doorstep. If thankfully less tragic or violent, this is a story played out across Europe, across Britain and in communities across Leeds as I write this today. As the manager of a small inner city community project based in Leeds called Meeting Point, I work with refugees and asylum seekers every day and I find it quite extraordinary that an opera written all those years ago can be directly relevant to the day to day work that I do now, as well as the lived experience of thousands of individuals across the UK today.
When the group of refugees arrive in Lycovrissi in desperate search of shelter and sanctuary, many of the villagers initially show compassion for the strangers. However, this is soon questioned, as thoughts turn to issues of personal need and sacrifice. In my line of work, I often hear phrases such as ‘there is no more room in Britain’; ‘we are full’, or, ‘we need to look after our own first’. This is an all too familiar rhetoric today, which has been perpetuated by some (not all) in mainstream political and media circles.
Meeting Point is based in an area of severe deprivation and hardship. It is also an extremely diverse community and one where tensions can run high. And yet within it you can and will find pockets of extraordinary compassion and generosity: the man who donates £100 of his welfare benefits each month to help the destitute; the asylum-seeking woman who saves up her coppers and then donates them to us; the local business owner who passes on unwanted or damaged food products to us to distribute to families; and the local faith, community groups, families and schools who collect and pass on donations of clothing, food and household items.
As a society we can choose, like Manolios and Katerina in the opera, to look at refugees through a window of social (in)justice and with compassion; or as something to fear, reject
and potentially exploit, as does Grigoris. One could ask what humanity has learned in the past 60 years: a question we should perhaps all be asking ourselves after watching Martinů’s deeply thought-provoking and humanistic opera. Yet there is hope. Across the country, within our communities and through projects such as Meeting Point and Theatre of Sanctuary, strangers from all backgrounds can and do come together in peace, friendship and solidarity. Perhaps next time you are in the theatre, look around you as there may be the face of a stranger who has not been there before, who has a story they carry with them and who will, I’m sure, appreciate a smile.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton