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Custom Program: Refugee Project, Bonn, Germany

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

As the refugees crisis mounted during 2015, Puppeteers Without Borders looked for a proposal through which puppetry could bring some sort of relief to children and/or eventually to adults.

The occasion came in Bonn, Germany, where there were several centers for refugees, who often stayed for a few months or longer.

Towards the end of 2015, our local Puppeteers Without Borders colleague, Stefan Birckmann, made contact with the organizers of one of the centers. The PalusHeim was host to some 250 refugees: children, families, young men, and older people.

The organizers agreed to receive us for an open plan program, introduce ourselves to the refugees and offer a time and space for creativity, leading eventually to some form of puppetry activity.

Romina Vianden-Prudent, chairperson of Susila Dharma Germany, and also living in Bonn, agreed to sponsor the program and do all the fundraising needed for the project.

That’s how at the beginning of 2016, in January, we went from France, where for the first visit of 10 days to the refugees center, to make the first contacts and see what possibilities would open up.

In view of the situation, we adopted a very open plan: to offer a space where refugees could wander in and out, freely, where we could offer an ear to listen and encouragement to use the art materials on the table to draw, paint, and create.

We went to Bonn to the Paulusheim Center three times in January, February and April, each time for ten days.

The meetings with the refugees were intense, although not many in numbers. Many refugees, especially the women, were reclusive, shy, and probably too preoccupied with their daily struggles. The children seemed to all suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

However, some very touching contacts were made, many of the children ended up wanting to draw for hours and were happy to learn new techniques.

Some of the adults opened up to tell their stories, and even speak in metaphor. Some mothers made wonderful, heart-wrenching drawings.

It was unrealistic to plan to create with them a puppet show, but the drawings and the stories were inspiring and just waiting to develop somehow.

So, we went back home with the drawings on paper, and the stories in our hearts, and started to create a puppet show using the stories as the canvas and the cutout drawings as the characters. The technique was, of course, paper theater.

At the end of October the performance was ready; it only needed two manipulators and one narrator.

For the fourth time we went to Bonn, packing the show in a car.

In Bonn, we created a team that included Stefan, our German colleague (narrator); Maya, a local student; Huia, a girl from New Zealand; and Puppeteers Without Borders.

During the rehearsals and the show at the refugees center, we realized two things: first and most important was that refugees were touched very deeply by the show, which meant that the scenes, even made with simple means, depicted for them the reality of their journeys in an authentic way. Which of course, was very important.

The second aspect was that often refugees didn't want to be faced again with that reality as they were now in search of a new life. They desired to move on.

We had five performances in various venues of Bonn, and the feedback has been very strong and touching.

For the German audience, the show “worked” very well: people were moved, astonished at the simplicity of the medium, and very appreciative.

The show represented a “bridge” between refugees and their hosts.

For many of the hosts, it was as if they understood for the first time the situation of the refugees, and they were shocked. It showed that sometimes with paper, glue and scissors we can reach far deeper into the heart of people than with sophisticated media.

“Who is the Enemy?” is the title of the performance, in paper theater, based on the stories and drawings of the refugees.

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