The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal: How a Bradford Rohingya refugee who spent his childhood in a camp brought the play to life

Bradford man Sirazul Islam spent his earliest years in a refugee camp. Now, he’s used the experience to explore a new form of advocacy – the arts. John Blow reports.

For the first eight years of his life, Sirazul Islam knew little more than the suffocating reality of packed huts at the refugee camp where he was born, his only understanding of the outside world the steady flow and smell of traffic passing the closed gates.

“We were just existing. It was sort of like an open prison,” he tells The Yorkshire Post, now aged 21 and living in Bradford.

His family fled the Rohingya persecution in Myanmar to the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh, eventually finding sanctuary in the UK with the help of the United Nations-backed Gateway Protection Programme.

Bradford-based Rohingya refugee and law undergraduate Sirazul Islam.

But memories of life in the camp will never leave Sirazul, a law undergraduate who wants to become a commercial solicitor but advocates for Rohingya people left behind.

Describing the camp’s conditions, he says: “It’s living in an eight by 10 room with 10 other people in a hut made of bamboo sticks and plastic coverings where there’s no sanitation, there’s no hygiene, we’ve had to share bathrooms with 50-odd other people, no privacy – people couldn’t have baths or take showers in private, people go couldn’t go to the bathroom privately – and it’s very crowded. You could hear what other people are saying about three or four huts down to yourself so that there was no privacy at all.

“Then you’ve got the social side where for an entire day people will be bored because they have nothing to do. They’re not allowed to go out to work, there is a lack of work in the refugee camp. And where some people can work they aren’t paid the same as their Bangladeshi counterparts.”

The most important issue for Sirazul, though, was the lack of education. There were learning centres instead of schools and little in the way of a curriculum, he says, meaning children just “go there and hang around”.

He adds: “Our presence was there but we weren’t living because our lives weren’t treated as human lives. We were always degraded to sub-humans both in Myanmar and then in Bangladesh because of how different we are to people. Because of our community being different – and we were always treated as the other.”

Sirazul hopes to change this through a type of advocacy he had never even considered until recently – the arts.

At the start of lockdown York-based Pilot Theatre, which is committed to creating drama for younger audiences, contacted Sirazul and brought him on board to help with S. Shakthidharan’s play adaptation of The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon’s novel story about a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia. Naturally, there was plenty Sirazul could bring to the table and despite having never worked in theatre before he became assistant director for the play, which on at the York Theatre Royal until tomorrow.

“My job is to always look out for things that might not ring true or that might not be as authentic as possible,” says Sirazul of his role, which also involves translating between the English and Rohingya languages.

It has opened up a whole new world of activism for Sirazul.

“This is potentially one of the first Rohingya-based plays in Europe. So it is a very big step. Rohingyas aren’t involved in theatre. We weren’t given the luxury of theatre in our community or in our society back home in our countries, because it wasn’t something that we had access to. So through this, I really hope that the creative arts is seen from a different perspective, by Rohingyas and the world sees the issues of refugees and the plight of these people who are less fortunate than use in a different light and are more kind hearted towards them.

“So my involvement, it’s basically trying to get what a Rohingya would see, or what a Rohingya would want to see, on stage”.

He adds: “I’ve seen an entire different side of advocacy. For my entire life, when I would advocate for the Rohingyas, I would go through formal mediums. For example, I will speak to MPs, local councillors, I give speeches to parliamentary groups, spoke at the National Education Union annual conference, I did all of that. And I thought, oh yes, those things were having an impact.

“But then when I did this theatre work, I was completely shocked because I can’t believe we’ve never done this before. This is probably the best way to educate the children of today about current political issues in a way that they understand, in a manner that they can have an interest in.”

Life changed dramatically for Sirazul when he was eight, and he is thankful that he was able to settle in Yorkshire with his immediate family – his parents and seven siblings including himself – which is not the experience of everyone.

“Bradford is known as the most culturally diverse city in our country and it’s known as that for very good reason. When we first came, we got a lot of help and we’re tremendously thankful to Bradford Council, the Bradford housing associations, Bradford workers, schools.

"Most definitely we got a lot of help with, for example, just settling in, helping us embed ourselves into the way of how a British person would live, which allowed us to assimilate very much more quickly than if we would have been in any other place. Because when I went to school, I met and I could see people who have been through the same experiences, of similar backgrounds to me, so it made it quite easy to relate to instead of being isolated.

"So life, of course, is very great. We are one of the few lucky ones to be able to escape the constant cycle of hell that the refugee camp is, so we could never complain.”

But Sirazul, who lives in the BD5 area, says: “I could never move on with my life because it’s always a part of me. Even if we’re here, our entire family is still in the refugee camp. And even if my family wasn’t, my entire community is still stuck in a limbo in the refugee camp. It’s not something that’s quite easy to forget.”

And it’s not an issue of the past, he says.

“When we think about genocide, we always think about something that has happened in the past, something that we learned in history. When we think about the issues of differences, we always think it’s not something close (but) the Rohingya community is spread across Yorkshire.

“We need to have an active role in the kind of society we want to live in. It comes down to the most basic fundamental choice: do you want to be complacent in a society that treats people differently based on where they’re from, based on what they look like, and persecutes them, or do you want to be the change that you want to see in the world and help other people be proactive in speaking up for these communities who may not have the voice?”

The Bone Sparrow is on at York Theatre Royal three more times, before going on tour. Visit www.pilot-theatre.com/present-work/the-bone-sparrow.

Persecution of the Rohingya

The Rohingya people have suffered decades of discrimination and repression under successive Myanmar governments, says Human Rights Watch, and have effectively been denied citizenship under the 1982 Citizenship Law.

Some 900,000 Rohingya are living in overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, most of whom fled Myanmar since August 2017 to escape the military’s “possible genocide,” says the organisation, allegations the state denies.

Only last month, Myanmar’s military junta appeared in place of the detained former political leader Aung San Suu Kyi at the UN’s top court, where it tried to throw out a case alleging that it committed genocide against the country’s Rohingya minority.

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