“In my own words” is an initiative from The Testimony Project providing a platform for women refugees and those who support them to speak out about issues close to their heart. See below for our interview with Christine Bacon, the founder of Actors for Human Rights.
Christine Bacon is originally from Australia, where she was an actor for many years until the Australian government’s actions towards asylum seekers and refugees urged her to take action. Christine coordinated an initiative called Actors for Refugees Australia, a network of actors who performed rehearsed readings of first-hand testimonies of individuals who had experienced the asylum system in Australia. On moving to the UK, Christine approached iceandfire, a theatre company that explores human rights stories through performance, and with them, she founded a UK version of the network. Actors for Human Rights has been iceandfire’s main outreach project for over five years now and has reached over 50,000 people across the UK.
Christine lends her voice to The Testimony Project.
Why do you do the work that you do?
It struck me that hearing the stories of people who have been through these things would help to change people’s perspectives; they certainly changed mine when I heard them. Once you know what really goes on you can’t really turn back.
What is the most pressing issue facing asylum seekers today?
There are many pressing problems, it is difficult to know which one to tackle first.
In recent months I would say legal aid and the closing of IAS and Refugee Migrant Justice. This has had massive implications for asylum seekers’ hopes of getting any kind of justice. Also the cuts to the Refugee Council and Refugee Action, two of the biggest frontline agencies, will have huge repercussions.
What change in government policy would you most like to see?
Ending detention. I think detaining someone who is not charged with any crime, detaining a child who is not charged with any crime for any length of time is a blot on any democratic society. It is unbelievable to me that there is no public outcry.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an asylum seeker?
To make connections with people in the UK. There are people who care and who want to help and who can help. Try to speak out as much as you can if you feel you are able to, make people aware of what you are going through because more often than not people will help you if you ask them to help. Don’t be scared to ask for help.
How can the ordinary person in the street help make a difference to improve the situation of asylum seekers?
In one of our scripts, Asylum Dialogues, that is what we explore. For example, there is a section of the script in which an asylum seeker with baby twins was released from detention and was just kicked out and expected make her way home on her own – from Bedford to Glasgow.
As well as the babies, she had all this luggage and she had no idea how she was going to manage. The ticket inspector asked her where she had been. When she told her, the Inspector couldn’t believe it. She didn’t know there were detention centres in the UK and she didn’t know that people like this woman were detained and that babies were detained. She made arrangements that at every station where this woman had to change that someone was there to help her with her bags, give her food. Basic human decency.
Just being aware that asylum seekers need help with basic things like that sometimes can help. Also arming yourself with information and making sure that if you do hear someone saying things that you know are not true, to correct them. That is how you start to change people’s perspectives.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced?
Reaching people who don’t know anything or who need to be challenged to think differently.
Last year we were invited to perform at the UK Border Agency and we did the Asylum Monologues to about 50 case owners there and one of the individuals whose testimony was included in the script came along and spoke to them afterwards, saying this is me 8 years later after giving me a negative decision, and this is what has happened to me and you have to realise what impact a wrong decision has on lives. Seeing her as a human being rather than a case was very successful.
What do you regard as your greatest achievement?
Starting Actors for Human Rights. I am proud of it and I am encouraged by the constant support that we have. Every day I have an email from another actor wanting to join us.
Who or what has been the greatest influence in your life?
In recent years it has been Noam Chomsky. I have started reading a lot of his work and I have been overwhelmed by his contribution to that way of thinking – challenging the official version as a matter of course and not taking anything which comes from official sources at face value. I have always been a bit like that but not really understood why or how to do it properly and he is an inspiration in that way.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
I’m not sure if I have been given it but I use it as a mantra is Gandhi’s– ‘be the change you want to see in the world. Rather than simply complain and get upset, if you want to see a change you should try to make it happen in your own sphere of influence
What is the one thing that you want to be remembered for?
That I was a decent human being!
Why does storytelling matter?
Story telling is one of those universal ways of conveying a message to people, engaging them and making them see that other human beings are just like them and I think that is what we try to achieve in most of what we do.