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How theater helps these Syrian refugees manage the trauma of war


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Judy Woodruff: And now: turning to an ancient tragedy to help heal modern trauma.

As special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, a therapeutic drama program in Glasgow is using a Euripides play to help Syrian refugees reckon with their pasts.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Heba Alwadi: Daraa, without its inhabitants, cold, destructive, frightening, dark, armored.

Malcolm Brabant: Last-minute rehearsals in Glasgow for Heba Alwadi, one of the stars of an ancient Greek play called "The Trojan Women."

The drama has been adapted to include the personal stories of the cast, none of whom have acted before. Heba is recounting a scene in her home town of Daraa, where the Syrian uprising began. Heba was 13 years old when her school came under attack from forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Heba Alwadi: Our classroom was surrounded by glass, and the mortars started, so it's not safe place at all. And we needed to leave the school very quickly.

It was so hard to see my teacher so scared. And I thought, I'm going to die.

Charlotte Eagar: Beautiful. Very good. Well done. You know, when you do it properly, the hair on my arms -- really.

Although "The Trojan Women" is a play that is two-and-a-half thousand years old, it's an eternal play . It speaks about eternal truths of war.

Malcolm Brabant: Producer Charlotte Eagar began running therapeutic drama projects in a Jordanian refugee camp six years ago. She sees parallels between the Syrians' plight and that of the Trojan women, who were enslaved after their city was overrun by the Greeks and all the men were killed.

Charlotte Eagar: It's all about death, exile, rape, murder, loss, everything that happens to any innocent people in war.

Heba Alwadi: The army's response was supposed to protect us. They were killing us instead. I wanted to scream: I am a child. You should protect me.

Charlotte Eagar: The way therapeutic drama works, from a psychological point of view, is if the participants can identify with the characters they are playing, they work their own stories into the text of the play.

So, for them, it helps them to get over the trauma that they have undergone, but also it means that, creatively, they put on a very, very powerful performance.

Malcolm Brabant: Psychotherapist Sanaa Al Froukh helped to translate the play, an extraordinary feat, as she only started learning English a year ago, when she moved to this village north of Glasgow.

She was a teacher in Daraa when her school was attacked by Assad's troops, and she witnessed pupils being killed. As she says on stage, it generated the type of fear that made her sick to the stomach.

Sanaa Froukh: We are people with dignity. And we have to support our children. This generation should have good future. No one can take this right from us, although we lose our country. But we need peaceful -- and that's our right.

I saw disasters. You cannot imagine how you can speak about your children who's died. No one will give you son again or daughter again.

Woman: Yes. We can stop.

Malcolm Brabant: Mohammed was a tailor in Syria. He spent two years hiding in a cellar. When he eventually emerged, he was arrested and was tortured. But he escaped to Egypt.

Mohammed: For me what's important, for me today, is I'm sending a message that there are innocent folks that get killed in wars who have no affiliation with the regime or the opposition. People get wasted in war. And their main concern is just to feed their kids, and take care of their household.

Malcolm Brabant: Most of those involved in this project were among 2,000 Syrians flown to Scotland under the U.N.'s refugee resettlement program.

Some support the Assad regime. Others are vigorously opposed. For a while, the gulf in political opinions caused tensions amongst the cast.

In Syria, those differences could end in death. But, here, they have managed to resolve their conflicts and to respect each other's opinions. So, in a small way, this play being staged in Eastern Glasgow has generated harmonious co-existence.

Actor: We are not saying that the opposition is good or bad. We are only speaking of our personal suffering.

Actors: He is right. Let him speak.

Malcolm Brabant: This two day production and nine months of drama workshops beforehand cost well into six figures. A large portion was subsidized by Glasgow City Council, this at a time when local authority spending in Britain is under severe pressure.

But Councillor Jennifer Layden believes it's been a good investment.

Jennifer Layden: I think putting in extra money to these causes helps raise the profile and raise awareness of the plight that refugees and asylum seekers go through when they come across from other countries and seek sanctuary in our city.

Charlotte Eagar: You know, we use the word refugee as a kind of label. We see these people on the news, they look foreign, there are quite a lot of them.

But, actually, they're just you and me. That's who they are. So, what I'm hoping -- and this is been what we have had in the past -- is that the audience will watch this play and they will see themselves reflected in the mirror of humanity, essentially.

Malcolm Brabant: Judging by the full houses and the audience reaction, the producers and cast achieved their objective.

Sarah Bradley: When you witness things through the media, it feels a little bit faceless, and it feels like very, very far away, whereas, when you're in a theater and it's live and it's so close you can almost touch it, it really sort of makes -- it really sinks into your heart.

Malcolm Brabant: The producers want to tour Britain to spread the word.

Sanaa Al Froukh: I teach my children every day how they can be leaders anywhere with any people. And it doesn't matter where. It doesn't matter with whom. But you have to be good person, because that will change the world forever, and that will give each one peace.

Malcolm Brabant: The peace that Sanaa craves for her five children is here in abundance in her Scottish village. She says Syria will always have a big place in her heart.

But Scotland is where the family's future lies, so they are staying here to contribute to the country that provided sanctuary.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Scotland.

Judy Woodruff: And we cannot imagine what they have lived through.

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