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Make a future to explore the past

Reva Klein sees refugees take part in a theatre workshop about Bosnia.

Trust exercises, those occasionally uproarious and always indispensable drama warm-ups where participants have to co-operate, collaborate and be confident that their partner won't let them down, take on a new meaning when there is no reason to trust anyone.

The four girls in the room giggle like all teenagers do when told to do daft things like getting into pairs and crossing the room on three hands and three feet. But while they trust each other, there is still a reticence, a nervousness about the rationale behind these activities. There are precious few others around - in the school, in this country, in the world - that they are at all sure about.

All four are refugees from former Yugoslavia. Teenage sisters Tina and Donja Andijc fled from Sarajevo to France three years ago with their siblings. They arrived in London last summer. Their parents are still in the Bosnian capital. Arberie Pllana and Aferdita Bytyci both came from Kosovo in 1992. All of them have left behind family and friends.

The girls are students at Hampstead School, north London, involved in Children of the Storm, a project initiated by the school to help support the 160 refugee pupils.

They and other refugee pupils from all over the world are working on an open-ended programme of workshops with Karl James, associate director of the Oxford Stage Company, which complement the company's tour of Mirad: A Boy from Bosnia, by Dutch playwright Ad de Bont and part of the "Making the Future" season of new plays from Europe on the theme of childhood.

For 14-year-old Arberie from Kosovo, the workshops are a respite from constant worry. "This makes you happy and gives you confidence. You forget the problems. When I do something, it keeps my mind off things. Otherwise, I worry all the time. Working with Karl helps us try to understand what's happening. God knows where my friends are in my country while I'm sitting here at my desk. Are the police chasing them? I watched my school being burnt down by the Serbs. Where are my teachers? Have they been shot? Even though I've been here three years, my mind is always there. No matter how hard we try, we can't stop thinking about things at home."

While Karl James can't stop the refugee children thinking, he aims, through the workshops, "to give them some fun and offer them a creative channel for their thoughts and energy. I'm not a therapist or a UN mission. What I do with these kids is what I do with kids anywhere else. I can't know what's going on in their lives. But I know that their imaginations are incredible."

Karl and colleagues are running drama workshops with children from all over the country. He will bring together refugee pupils from Hampstead and British-born pupils from Southend, with whom he has been working on refugee issues, to learn from each other.

The sisters from Sarajevo said these workshops are about going back and running away, and understanding drama and English people.

Oxford Stage Company tours the three plays in "Making the Future" (Mirad, A Boy from Bosnia, Hitler's Childhood and Grace) until November 18. Workshops in schools are being run throughout the tour. Further information: 01865 245781.

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