Standing up for asylum seekers: refugees learn the art of comedy | Comedy

In Athens, a handful of novice standups are at the mic after taking part in a series of comedy workshops. One of the organisers, Vasileia Vaxevani, compares the experience to the first time you have sex. “It ends quickly. It hurts a little. But you definitely know that you want to do it again.”

Migration is the uncharacteristically hilarious topic at the heart of this show which is produced by Counterpoint Arts and performed by refugees and asylum seekers as part of Refugee Week whose theme this year was “healing”. In an audience as diverse as this gig’s, and in a country that has seen its communities divide as a result of polarized responses to migration, the versatility of that theme is manifest.

The award-winning British comedian Tom Parry, who has helped deliver a similar series of workshops and gigs for the No Direction Home program since 2018, led facilitators in Athens and Lesbos in teaching the infamously nerve-racking art of standup comedy. Speaking to migrants and non-migrants alike, he told them over Zoom that “you don’t need to be funny, you just have to be interesting”.

On a warm afternoon on Lesbos we watch Salim Nabi, once an Afghan refugee and now a Canadian resident, perform at the Mosaik center in the finale of another series of workshops, co-produced with Miguel Selvelli of Nepantla Border Cultures. “Refugees, they’re troublemakers,” says Nabi. “Take the NGO Refugee 4 Refugees. It makes you think … Why is it written like that? Well, they’re saying if you let one refugee in, suddenly, they become four refugees.”

Lesbos was formerly home to the Moria refugee camp, one of the largest in Europe, which burned down in 2020. The island saw its population grow by 20,000 refugees, most of whom have now left for neighboring countries. But Lesbos remains a hub for those working within migration sectors, and subsequently, a hub for migrant-oriented arts. The Mosaik gig featured seven comedians – a mix of refugees, migrants, volunteers and NGO workers.

Jalal Joinda, facilitator of the Lesbos programme, echoes Parry by saying: “People think if you want to make others laugh, you need to know a lot of jokes already. But when you’re doing standup, you can put your own stories in.” That is especially beneficial for refugees, he says, reflecting on his own “nightmare” border crossings. Previously a radio show host and popular media personality in Afghanistan, Joinda fled the country in 2016 with his family after political hostility. He first arrived in Moria and lived and worked on Lesbos for several years before moving to Berlin. “I never want to forget what happened to me,” he says. “It’s very important to always talk about what has happened to you, because you might be able to stop it from happening to other people.”

When we speak to a young man from central Africa at Kara Tepe camp, Moria’s replacement, Joinda explains that as refugees it’s important for both of them to gain self-confidence. That’s another attractive aspect of these workshops, alongside interacting with the local community in Mytilene, practicing their English and passing the time while waiting for bureaucratic procedures such as receiving documentation papers (this man has been waiting almost two years for his). Comedy is “easy to digest”, Joinda tells me, making it one of the most powerful mouthpieces. “If you just say horrible things to people, it will be harder for them to digest because we’re all so tired of the bullshit going on around the world. Comedy is a way you can send strong messages to people without them feeling bored.”

Comedy also forges a common ground between communities who, though they have different experiences, are able to bond over the humor in everyday observations. At the Athens gig, two young Afghan migrants – Arash and Majid – perform material about, respectively, the inability to flirt and the trials of annoying cousins. Arash, who arrived in Greece in 2016, enthuses about having learned how to deliver a punchline. “Majid told us very openly that this is the first time somebody has asked him to tell a story about his life [in Afghanistan],” Vaxevani reveals. And on something other than seeking asylum, too. “The conversation is always, ‘Oh, that poor immigrant or refugee, poor Afghan, poor Syrian’,” observes Vaxevani. But these amateur comedians are “real people, they have interesting stories, they’ve had whole, funny lives”.

As the war in Ukraine and the British government’s Rwanda asylum scheme have kept migration in news headlines, comedy offers a new way to frame the discourse. Rather than treating them as a collection of “sob stories” and the subjects of inhumane policies, the art of standup allows migrants to just be human.

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