"You, Me, And The Distance Between Us": Making sense of being a volunteer, whilst serving
'You, Me, and The Distance Between Us', by Ellen Murial, portrays the reality of migrant camp life in all of its dirt, distress, boredom and banality. It also dissects the life of its volunteers, who very rarely get considered as more than a bunch of earnest drones searching for a cause.
I went to watch 'You, Me and The Distance Between Us' a few weeks ago. The performance took place at M29 Theatre, a community housing project located near Gesundbrunnen. Pillows were strewn across the floor, the ambiance mellow, the room packed with people. The lights suddenly go down, the room goes quiet, and a lone figure stands on stage.
Ellen Muriel introduces herself, providing us with a brief bio of her volunteering experience. Almost imperceptibly, her cadence shifts from normal dialogue to spoken word, possibly as a way of juxtaposing 'volunteer' Ellen, with 'performer' Ellen. I wondered, how will Ellen successfully manage to embody the on-stage dramatism necessarily required of performance art, whilst simultaneously retain the purity of her story, and most importantly, the story of the people she depicts?
"Let us feel empowered by our privilege to speak out in a society where we will not be arrested, exiled, or murdered for our point of view. We have the freedom to learn, to write, to scream and shout. And for those of us to whom that all feels quite intimidating, we can use art as a weapon, a dagger that comes together with shield. I can hide behind a puppet, speak via a script or a song, use humour or verse to begin to grapple with what I do and do not know, what I have and have not seen, and what I can and cannot understand."
These opening words echo some of my own experiences and feelings towards volunteering: Feelings of guilt, of not wishing to speak on something which I have not truly experienced, and yet, feeling compelled to say something, for to stay silent would also seem wrong. How can an (often) white, (often) middle-class volunteer find a balance between using their voice to promote the human rights of the people they work with, but not inadvertently, or deliberately, end up promoting themselves? And even if their intentions are pure, how can we know? Does it even matter if the end result is the same?
"Lets not be afraid to share, discuss and argue, Be open to those who correct your language or try to criticise you, You may feel your voice trembles and your face begins to burn, But only through communicating can we progress and learn. I can share my experiences, that do come with a warning: I am only one person, one perspective, One individual who is incredibly subjective.
The stories I could try to tell, are not written in plain fact, They cannot be quantified, proof and evidence they lack. They were merely passed from mouth to ear, The details sometimes blurred, some aspects of the truth unclear. Told whist sorting clothes or serving tea, Or simply waiting in the queue to pee.
I cannot tell you which day it was when Ahmed told his friends good bye, Or if the sun was shining when Bassam took two bullets to his thigh. Sometimes the descriptions were few and far between, The speaker wary of revealing what he'd seen. You see, they often tried to protect me, from their own reality.
But I can try to tell you what it all meant to me, What I learnt whilst sorting clothes and standing in the queue to pee. What I heard and felt, and smelt and said and saw, Because un-apologetically, I can offer nothing more."
Over the next hour, Ellen uses words, shadow and song to describe her volunteering experience- an experience that, she is very clear to point out, is, a) just one story, and b) a volunteer story. Whilst her material remains faithfully focused on the refugee's lives- their faces as they wait in the queues, their reactions as they realise they have nowhere to sleep, their pain at losing a loved one- Ellen acknowledges her fly-on-the-wall status, of only being able to capture her own perceptions of their reality. It is this wry self-awareness that makes Ellen's play so refreshing. Her self-scrutiny, and understanding of her innate privilege is fully articulated within her show, but done in a non-apologetic way, because to give in to the embarrassed inertia that many white Westerners feel at the thought of raising their voice, or a helping hand, is the worst thing you could do.
Human conversation with many of the migrants and volunteers that Ellen worked with, adds real context to the play: A Syrian doctor asking where he can pay for a room for him and his family, being told that he has no papers, his money is useless, there is nothing he can do, he is technically illegal and therefore he doesn't have any rights: "Welcome to the EU."
One of my favourite elements of Ellen's performance is her shadow puppet sections, where she projects the puppets onto the wall of the tent (using shadows from a lamp that is suspended inside the tent), as she sings, "They queue for chai, they queue for port-a-looooos". She draws the puppet away from the wall of the tent, producing an enlarging effect on the shadows, which continue to expand and fade as she croons, ".. the days go by, the days go byyyy". This is the essence of the play. The queuing for chai, the queuing for food, the queuing for portaloos. Refugee life is a waiting gam. A short-term waiting game for food, for toilet breaks, for basic rations, but also, a long-term waiting game for help, for a fresh start. This monotony and boredom, drenched in a vague panic at not knowing how long this limbo-life will continue comes through in Ellen's play. Protracted refugee situations now last an average of 26 years, and many of these years are spent in migrant camps, sometimes with whole generations growing up within the confines of the camp.
All the way through, Ellen's piercing honesty carries the play forwards as she describes the lethargy, the grief, the hopelessness of camp life, but also the complete and utter banality. This bizarre reality leads to funny observations and an accumulated feeling of surrealism which is often overlooked by conventional media. This contrast between the media portrayal of camp life, and camp life itself, was brilliantly illustrated in one of Ellen's scenes, where a reporter tries to extract a profound soundbite from her, and Ellen replies in bewilderment, "Hi, my name Ellen- I serve tea.'
Beyond the grand statements, earnest interviews and powerful photography, lies a mundane, and often seemingly hopeless world of front-line volunteering. This work is not glamorous. It is quite often boring, and can feel empty and lacking in value or higher-purpose. This is the bread-and-butter work that keeps refugee camps churning out thousands of meals a day- clothes distribution, soup distribution, tea distribution. The daily slog of handing out clothes, or spooning out the umpteenth bowl of soup is rarely captured with any sense of the inner lives of the volunteers who have made the journey to these camps, to give their time in this way.
Not content to accept the worn-out tropes about the altruism of volunteering, Ellen explores this volunteering dimension, taking a long hard look at what really motivates volunteers, asking difficult questions: "Why am I really here? What do I hope to gain from this? Are my intentions pure?"
This issue of intention and impact has been explored a lot in recent years, as more people become savvy to the Big-Business-like structure of large charities that appear to prioritize profit over actual impact, funneling millions into ad campaigns, and (let's be real), ultimately benefiting from human and ecological tragedy. On a sociological level, the very act of identifying volunteering as distinct from just normal everyday kindness creates a dichotomy of help-giver and help-receiver, which Anthropologist, Neriko Doerr, points out, facilitates an "act of othering".
In recent years we have also seen a trend of 'volontourism'- young students, normally from higher-income countries, who pack their bags, and set off on a Big Adventure to a developing country, as much for their own personal and professional development as for the good it actually does. It may sounds cynical, but I, as a person who spent 3 months volunteering in Africa can testify, the financial investment versus positive impact a lot of volutuneering initiatives actually have is difficult to quantify, and at worse, totally ineffective. Certainly at the time, as you stand in front of a class of one-hundred Swahili-speaking students, spluttering through your PowerPoint presentation (in English), you begin to think "What on earth am I doing here?" And more importantly: "How is this helping?"
A lot of these memories came back to me as I watched Ellen's play- old feelings of frustration, of feeling that nothing was really changing, that I was here on a bit of a fools-errand. Ellen directly explores these ideas herself, and even uses a few volunteer caricatures within the play: The Bossy Do-Gooder, The American Selfie-Mad Voluntour etc. When I asked Ellen after the show why she used these characters- Were they a reflection of herself? Was she trying to juxtapose her own story with these ridiculous straw-men? She replied, "I see myself in all of them". This candid reply really sums up why "You, Me and The Distance Between Us" worked as piece of performance art, and why Ellen was so likeable as a person. She managed to navigate this seriously sensitive subject matter in a way which was never pretentious, never dull, and always truthful.
This aspect of the play, and of Ellen's narrative, was something I was keen to push the envelope on more in our own interview. A small mean part of me was possibly hoping to uncover some sort of ulterior motive for her having written the play- it was so successful after all, and clearly so well documented, that surely (I cynically thought) Ellen must have been planning to make this play during her time volunteering. Surely the idea must have been incubating as she served the tea, and stood in the queue to pee?
The irony of the fact that Ellen is essentially capitalizing on her volunteering experience by using it as creative fodder for her incredibly successful international tour, is not lost on her. When I try to delicately suggest that there is a certain amount of, well, exploitation, Ellen gets my point straight away, and is very quick to agree with me, but to also defend her position.
Her articulate reply convinces me that this is a question she has probably encountered before, but, which she has also internally grappled with. Given the honesty of her play, and the introspection and self-awareness that comes with conceiving and producing a piece like this, it comes as no surprise to me that Ellen has thought a lot about this dilemma. Ultimately, she explains, its Catch 22- either she doesn't speak about her experience because of her inherent privilege, and therefore gets branded selfish or ignorant, or, she speaks out and gets flack for being seen as exploiting the situation and turning other people's tragedies into creative material for a personal project. But, after hearing about the organic and completely unstructured way her play developed, I realized that Ellen had no intention of making a play. The plays conception and development came months afterwards, when she had returned to the UK.
It was her mother, explained Ellen, who suggested that she perform a small piece at their local University. The piece was well-received and spurred Ellen to further develop the play, and to experiment with different artistic styles and formats, until she ended up with The Space Between Us; a dynamic mixture of spoken-word, song, and shadow puppetry, projected onto the wall of tent hanging suspended in the middle of the stage. This striking stage set-up helps to anchor the whole performance, providing a focal point which also acts as a perfect canvas for the shadow puppets. I asked Ellen if the tent was from one of the camps, "No, my parent's shed." As I read through my article and reflected on it's tone and message, I realized that, ironically but maybe not surprisingly, I had fallen into the same trap that I was rather self-righteously preaching about throughout this entire article. Instead of focusing and reflecting on the stories of the refugees depicted in Ellen's play, I was too busy giving My Opinion about the various merits and pitfalls of Ellen's show *face palm*.
At the end of the day, it is impossible to ever truly understand the life of another person, or to accurately convey their story to other people. What Ellen Muriel manages to do, however, is to talk about her reactions, her observations and her interactions, on a very personal level. Her ingenuity in producing and performing 'You, Me and The Distance Between Us', and her thoughtfulness throughout, particularly the beautiful monologue at the start, communicates a message of connection, and of hope: Beyond the labels of 'volunteer' or 'migrant', or 'refugee', we are all just people, waiting for a cup of tea, or standing in the queue to pee.
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