Benjamin Zephaniah’s second novel Refugee Boy has played a powerful role in humanising the plight of the enforced migrant for a generation of young people. Published in 2001 following his encounter with a young Sri Lankan boy who had witnessed the murder of his parents in the country’s brutal civil war, the poet wrote the book hoping to convince his audience that refugees were not just statistics but real, brave, living-breathing people.
By substituting Ethiopia and Eritrea for the warring factions of the sub-continent he unwittingly mirrored the life of East African poet Lemn Sissay – who came to Britain seeking sanctuary and received it at the hands of a deeply religious white family that seem to have done their best to add a fresh layer of trauma to the young man’s life.
Sissay like the chief protagonist of Refugee Boy, Alem – and Zephaniah - was no stranger to the inside of a children’s home and the challenges of growing up different in a conditionally welcoming culture. Zephaniah had originally wanted the stage adaptation of this enduring novel for young adults to be undertaken by an unknown writer drawn from the local area.
But Sissay pleaded with him to be allowed to complete the task and Zephaniah eventually agreed. There was a danger that the subject matter of the play could come over as worthy even a little preachy. This was a trap largely avoided by an adaptable cast and an evocative stage set which seemed to be made up almost entirely of suitcases – that battered symbol of human movement.
Alem arrives in the UK on holiday with his father who decides to leave him safely here whilst he returns to face the dangers of his native land and its marauding young gunmen. It is a threat murderously enhanced by his mixed marriage and the fact his 14-year-old son straddles the ethnic divide. Left to the mercy of the asylum system Alem, played by Fisayo Akinade, proves a cheerful and resilient young man who drinks in the benefits of a British state education whilst learning to survive in the teenage urban jungle.
The play builds nicely as we are drawn into his struggle but it becomes a much more multi-dimensional affair when we are introduced to his well-meaning but bruised foster family who must juggle their good intentions with their own emotional needs for the good of the boy. The brutality of events back in Ethiopia are contrasted with the growing comfort of Alem’s improving domestic set up which is cruelly shattered when the dream of his father’s return becomes a tragic reality.
West Yorkshire Playhouse to 30 March