by Katrina Stuart Santiago
▶︎ What is captured of the refugee crises across the world is always ever a fraction of its multifarious truths. Save for the usual cause-oriented and fundraising-related information campaigns, there is little in the public sphere that might level-up the discourse on the policies and decisions that create these conditions. Often, it even seems as if in-depth stories are silenced, erased from the daily news we consume. Yet there are refugees across the world, and even just in Asia, from Muslim-Filipinos displaced by the Marawi War, the indigenous peoples forced to evacuate because of militarization in Southern Philippines, the Rohingya now in Bangladesh.
This is why the promise that Huzir Sulaiman’s “Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner” (directed by Claire Wong) makes is an important one, where even when its press releases might say that this is about humanitarian workers in refugee camps, one is allowed to imagine the possibilities for discussing the crisis which gives birth to these narratives of displacement, be it of the refugees or the workers who tend to them.
And it starts well enough seemingly moving in that direction. A case is being investigated at a refugee camp, and the voice of authority is one that is distant and removed, even uncaring, a necessity in the task of unpacking what led to the unnamed emergency. It’s also a signal that the storyline will shift between this present and the recent past, which as it turns out, is barely about the displaced persons’ welcome dinner. Neither is it about the refugees.
Instead it is about the personal differences and personality conflicts among humanitarian workers. Instead it is about the individual reasons that inform why these workers are even here: a messianic complex, a strong belief in the mission, or is it just about the money? Instead it is about how responses are slowed down by the lack of funds and bureaucracy. Instead it is about the coping mechanisms that this motley crew of workers are forced to come up with. Instead it is about racial power and gender politics. Instead it is about sexual violence in the workplace.
To some extent, with all these issues thrown into the mix, it’s no surprise that there was little to no discussion about the experience of the actual displaced persons — the refugees living in these evacuation camps, the ones whose lives are bound to these power structures, the ones whose suffering is of primary importance. This is not to say that they are not mentioned at all; it is to say that when they are, their stories are merely used as a way to draw parallels between their experiences and that of the humanitarian workers. And as these stories are told from the perspective of the workers, it is always portrayed as not much more than a “problem” that needs to be addressed.
Case in point: there is a growing list of sexual abuse cases against female refugees on camp and security officers are being tagged as culprits. Instead of this being fleshed out as an issue, it is seen as something that needs to be “handled” by the male security officer. There is a problem with funds and therefore with food for the refugees. The solution? Create awareness about the cause of displaced persons by inviting celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow to dinner — which would mean using the little that is available for a meal that’s fancier than usual.
These issues, surfaced early in the plot, slowly disappear as the play unfolds. What we were instead treated to was an overkill of issues that have to do with the humanitarian workers as displaced persons —how they deal with being uprooted from family and context, how they are victims of the bureaucracy, how they are pushed to weigh self-preservation against selflessness every day, how they live in a bubble of uncertainty.
Yes, the parallels between the workers and the refugees were everywhere. But the story being told here was solely about the humanitarian workers, and it is telling that the form could only be burdened by its unraveling. All back stories were established via long-drawn-out dialogue. The unsaid was transposed into (another) shift in time and consciousness, where movement, dance, monologue, song were used as a way to break the silence. These shifts did not only happen too often; there seemed to be little restraint in utilizing these in telling the individual stories. In certain instances it seemed uncalled for, even offensive, as with making the rape victim “perform” the rape via movement, as with the rape monologue that ended with a shadow of a crucifixion.
The overall effect was a whole lot of melodrama which surfaced not much else but the privileging of the individual crises instead of the collective oppression, the humanitarian workers versus the refugees. Here’s the problem with parallels like this one: it allows us to pretend that all stories are created equal, that the humanitarian worker’s and the refugee’s experience are on the same level. They are not. One has the choice to be there, the other does not have that privilege.
Ironically, the story that “Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner” tells, even as it talks about humanitarian workers, could’ve happened in any other workplace. The moral crises, the critical conflicts, are not specific to this context, and in that sense “displaced persons” were nothing more than a backdrop. Sure it begins and ends with it, but that’s to say the refugee crisis was used merely to bookend this drama — not much more but something to prop up the material, something to keep it in its place.
Here is where one must reckon with the kind of dangers that a production like this poses. Because for all its good intentions, it ended up privileging the already privileged, and silencing the already silenced. To some extent, given the parallels it insisted on highlighting, it even ended up belittling the refugee crisis, portraying it as something that’s exactly the same as any other (privileged) experience.
But nothing could be farther from the truth. And while there should be no issue with the decision to pick one narrative over another, one has to wonder whether the silencing of the refugee experience — even within the confines of this play — is just and warranted.
This is not to say that the stories of our humanitarian workers must not be told. It is to ask: towards what end? When the real victims of the crises continue to be silenced, when we are unable to capture these experiences, when we are treated to but a fraction of these stories, how do we engage and shift the narratives in the displaced persons’ favor?
If this play is any indication, then we start by silencing our own privilege, and letting the refugee story of displacement, violence, and oppression be told in all its complexity: distinct, extraordinary, and painful. ***
"Displaced Persons' Welcome Dinner" was part of the program for participants to the Asian Arts Media Roundtable in Singapore by Arts Equator in late May 2019.