Off to a flying start in a new country

4th May 2007 at 01:00

Circus skills are helping asylum seekers adjust to life in the UK, says Stephen Jones

things my mother never told me, No 47: how to mount a trapeze. It's true that until now I have had no need of the information. But here I am, in my 58th year, with the said apparatus dangling invitingly in front of my nose.

Sad to say, I decline the invitation and exit meekly, stage left.

Now I will never know the thrill of soaring above the lighted ring, the gasps of the crowd filling my ears. But others around me might; younger, fitter, more eager volunteers, hungry for the challenges that the "circus"

skills of the trapeze or clambering up a rope can bring them.

We are in a community hall on a large council estate in Hove, a few miles west of Brighton, East Sussex. And the ropes and trapezes are just a part of the physical theatre performance that Philippa Vafadari and her young cast are actively putting together.

Philippa is the artistic director of BandBazi, a performing arts company dedicated to nurturing the talents of disadvantaged young people, particularly those in the sizeable community of refugees and asylum seekers to be found in and around Brighton.

Most of the dozen or so young people in today's workshop have recently arrived from Iran, though there is also 21-year-old Rami from the Yemen and three locals, who add to the mix of cultures.

First Philippa leads them in a warm-up session to loosen limbs and relax inhibitions. After this, they each take turns on the two trapezes and work on their rope-climbing skills under the watchful eye of Kyle, who at just nine years old must be the youngest circus-skills instructor in the land.

Then it's working on the semi-improvised piece that the group are planning to perform at Brighton's Pavilion Theatre in June. The theme they are working around is the uses and abuses of power.

First Mohammed shows off his rapping credentials - in Farsi. The rest of the group join in with synchronised calls of "Yo!" at suitable moments.

"What's Yo in Farsi?", Philippa asks. Mohammed grins and answers: "Yo!"

In the next routine, Moham-med and Majid, also from Iran, stand on the trapezes and swap observations, in Farsi and English, about political power. The language mix is part of the appeal, explains Aisha Lawrie, a Connexions adviser who often refers young people on to BandBazi.

Working out of Brighton's Young People's Centre, Aisha gives guidance to young asylum seekers and refugees. "I help them find college classes, work and social activities to try and integrate them into local life."

The drama projects of BandBazi are an important part of this, she says. In a supportive environment they can build self-confidence, improve their English and meet people . "It's somewhere they can be normal," she adds, "a place where their former experiences will not make them stand out."

Sadly, not everyone has such an enthusiastic take on the group. BandBazi's funding sources include the European Social Fund, the Arts Council and the National Lottery. When The Sun newspaper picked up on this in January, it ran a classic knocking piece that began: "Asylum seekers are getting TRAPEZE lessons funded by taxpayers' cash."

The writer never came anywhere near the group, otherwise he might have heard from the participants exactly what they have been getting from the taxpayer.

Manzar Zakaria, 19, is another Iranian exile who is hoping to stay. She is attending college in Brighton and plans to study medicine.

"I have learnt a lot of English at BandBazi," she says. "And, as well as learning to use the trapeze, I have found out how to communicate with English people and made a lot of new friends."

And then there's 23-year-old Mohammed Goortani, an asylum seeker who has been in Britain for nearly three years but has only recently found BandBazi.

"Before, I just sat at home feeling depressed," he says. "Now I am getting new experiences and really enjoying it."

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