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A ballerina visits a refugee camp

Raising awareness of the refugee crisis through ballet

The St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre is bringing a ballet version of Bizet's Carmen to London's Coliseum theatre in August. 'Her Name Was Carmen', will be set in a European refugee camp and adapt the opera to the stories of the more than one million people who arrived in Europe last year.

As part of their research Oxfam took the prima ballerina Irina Kolesnikova, choreographer Andrei Kuznetzov-Vecheslov, and the director of the St. Petersburg Theatre Ballet Konstantin Tachkin to visit camps in Macedonia and Serbia . Here they met people from Syria and Afghanistan trapped by the recent border closures in the Balkans.

Irina tells us what the trip meant to her.

When we first had the idea of setting Carmen in a refugee camp, we thought it was important to get a real sense of the conditions in which people are living so that we could bring as much realism and authenticity to the stage as possible. I knew it would be interesting to visit the camps of Tabanovce in Macedonia, and Presovo across the border in Serbia, but I honestly didn't expect it to be the life-changing experience it was, opening my eyes to a reality that could not have felt more distant from my own everyday life.

I had seen the reports on TV, the movie-like images of people travelling with their children on the roads of Europe but until I got there, it was hard to imagine it was real. Arriving in Tabanovce and later in Presovo, I was struck by this intense feeling I was stepping into a moment of history - one that might never be repeated on this scale. I was following the steps of more than a million women, children and men who had risked their lives in the hope of a safer future. At the peak of the crisis, 10,000 people a day were arriving by train at Tabanovce camp - on the same platform where I was standing.

Both camps were only ever intended to be one-stop transit centres to receive water, food and clothes and to register with the authorities - they were never designed to be places for people to stay. During the peak of last summer's migration, tired, visibly exhausted and traumatized people stopped off here for perhaps 10 or 20 minutes before continuing their frantic odyssey to Western European countries.

As they stepped out of trains, they would be given food, blankets, warmer clothing and legal support by Oxfam and its partners before continuing on their journey.

This all changed on 8 March when the borders closed and these people became trapped in a stateless limbo in camps not built to cater for the long-term - hundreds of them even trapped in the no-man's land between Macedonia and the frontier of Serbia which literally closed in front of them.


On arriving at Tabanovce where 600 people are now living, I was taken to a class of children who were all excited by the idea that I had come to give a ballet lesson. They had already done a warm up class and now gathered in the container which accommodates the child friendly space for the many children that make up half of the camp's population. Sitting with them, discussing their drawings and hearing about their lives, I started to understand the reality of being a child in a camp. Days filled with nothing to do except for the most welcome entertainment and care provided by local NGO workers or other people desperate to use their professional skills in the service of the children, like a former teacher who gives them Arabic lessons a few times a week.

But it was the reality of being a new mother in a refugee camp that truly hit me. As the mother of a 2 year old myself, I found it unbearably moving when I sat chatting to a young mother, 18 year old Maryam, whose husband and father had flown from Syria a few months before and were waiting for Maryam and her mother to join them in Germany. I held her 13 day old beautiful baby as Maryam recounted how, heavily pregnant, she had fled Damascus, walked over mountains in the freezing cold, and by night crossed the Mediterranean on a crowded and unsafe boat into which smugglers forced her to board at gun point. I can't even pretend to imagine how terrified she must have been both for her life and that of her unborn baby as she sat in that rocky boat in the middle of the sea. And I can't imagine the relief she must have felt knowing they had all made it safely to shore of Lesbos.

Days later and full of hope (a country closer towards being reunited with her husband) she took the barbed wired track leading into Serbia, just a hundred yards from Tabanovce camp. But that day, the Serbian border closed. Not only was Maryam not allowed to cross into Serbia even though her papers were in order, but she also wasn't allowed back into Macedonia by the police at the other end of the track. Maryam, was stuck for 4 days, about to give birth, in the no-man's land between the both countries.

She asked me if I knew when the border would be opening again so she could make her way to Germany for her husband to finally meet with Sham - his new daughter, named after the city of Damascus - and for them to live like a normal family. I have never felt so utterly helpless in all my life. What could I say - that I just didn't know anything?

I couldn't bear to leave these people who so totally opened their hearts to me, but as I was walking away, a little girl who had been clinging onto my arm throughout the visit took off a bright pink plastic ring, in the shape of a star. She took my hand and placed it on my finger. I still don't have the courage to take it off. It might look like a simple trinket but it now symbolises so much more. It carries the hope I saw in the girl's eyes, and everyone else I met, despite the horrors they have gone through. I owe it to her and them to keep it on and not to forget how that visit opened my eyes to the harsh reality of life that is experienced by so many people every single day.

I am just a ballerina, it's true. But through my dance, I will do everything I can to bring attention to this issue.

Find out more about Oxfam's response to the refugee crisis

Photos: Stefan Rousseau/PA

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