Evans High students ready to share their stories

Locked with her mother in a pitch-black shipping container for two weeks by Sinhalese soldiers because her Tamil brother had married a Sinhalese girl.

Held at knife-point on the way home from school in Egypt and confined to home for three months by the threats of terrorists who knocked each day on his door.

Discovering her father had been kidnapped and held captive in Iraq after she had arrived safely in Australia and believed he had gone away for work.

These are the true experiences of Evans High School's refugee students that feature in Treehouse Theatre production Suitcase Stories, on at Riverside Theatres Parramatta this week.

The Blacktown school's counsellor, Catherine Maguire-Donvito, helped write the script which is a fusion of verbatim theatre — where the words are the student's own — movement, and projected imagery. She said the program was a form of therapy for the students who are from countries including Sri Lanka, Sudan, Palestine and Bhutan.

Many are among the 240 enrolled at Evans High’s Intensive English Centre.

"We write the stories down and act it, and the brain gets used to the idea," Ms Maguire-Donvito said.

"It moves from a purely emotional response to a more intellectualised response about the trauma.

"It's still a horrible memory but it is processed and understood so it's something they have more control over rather than coming back as a flashbacks and nightmares.

"We make a point of telling happy stories as well as sad. The students all support each other and become like a family."

It has been weeks since Bishoy Soliman, the young man held at knife-point, has had a nightmare. Already a fan of acting through his experiences in church in Egypt, he said he had enjoyed the three months of rehearsals.

Vemsulla Subramaniyam, 16, is positive despite her shipping-container ordeal and three-month boat journey last year. She admits it was difficult to talk about.

"I didn't tell anyone, even my friends, so when I decided to tell my suitcase story I cried a lot," she said.

"It was hard to believe in God, but once I heard the other stories I was okay."

Ban Lazim, 15, was asleep when men stormed into her house and took her father. She was sheltered from the truth for years and only found out when scripts for the production were written in August.

"I wish I didn't know, but now I am happy because he's in Turkey with my sister and he's safe," she said.

Vemsulla said the play helped promote understanding.

"Many refugees, asylum seekers and migrants all come to school and many students are thinking they're coming to Australia because they need money and a happy life," she said.

"They're really coming because they're forced and can't live in their own country.

"Once the [other] students get to know that they don't bully — they show extra care."

Suitcase Stories is at Riverside Theatres, Church Street, Parramatta on November 20 and 21, at 7pm. Details: riversideparramatta.com.au.


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