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The student cast of 27 students poses for the camera on the school’s stage.

Making refugee stories come alive: Lawrence Heights Middle School

By Shellene Drakes-Tull

The purpose of every dramatic performance is to entertain, but the students and staff at Lawrence Heights Middle School made sure to educate and change perceptions when they performed their annual spring production ‘A Chamada’ (The Call) A Wake for Refugees.

Making learning real and interesting

The performance was created by Lawrence Heights drama, dance and language arts teacher Terrance Saunders. His goal is to make sure that the school’s productions are never what people expect to see from a middle school located in Lawrence Heights, a low-income, racialized community.

“As I tell people, I don’t do Disney. I don’t do fiction,” he explains. “The work must always be about challenging people’s perceptions about who these children are and what they are capable of doing.”

Pulling from literary works of Khaled Hosseini and Christina Sharpe, Terrance and his students delved into Canada’s history with refugees, particularly peoples who arrived by water. They spoke of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Ibos people, the refusal of Indians in 1914 in Vancouver on the SS Komagata Maru, Jewish refugees on the SS St. Louis who were refused entry to Halifax in 1929, the Vietnamese Boat people, Haitian refugees and more.

“Basically, I was talking about refugees with respect to the children who are presently their descendants,” he says. “A lot of the children who sit in the classroom are children whose parents are refugees. It is not fiction—it is real and it connects. It makes the learning real. It makes the learning concrete. It makes the learning interesting. The students don’t have to stretch to understand. They can say that’s my mom’s story. That’s my aunt’s story.”

A diverse group of students sits on the school’s stage.



Making real-life connections

For Kawthar, a Grade 7 student, this is her mom’s story. Her mother escaped to Tanzania from Rwanda during the country’s civil war before moving to Toronto. “Most people who saw the play cried—my mother was one of them. It really hit home for her,” she explains. “I don’t think people realize there is hardship—I feel that people take things so easy.

The play shows that people go through a lot to come to this country. So if you’re making it worse for them, what a horrible person you are.”

The production also gave a different perspective than what the students were used to hearing—the perspective of refugees who are searching for a safe place to live. “When people are speaking about refugees, they often speak about the reasons why governments didn’t accept them or they tell the perspective of the government or the residents in that country,” explains Grade 8 student Aliah. “They don’t talk about why the refugees came in the first place. They leave out that the refugees were often from the colonies of that country, so they shouldn’t have been denied entry. They also don’t talk about what those refugees faced when they had to go back.”

A variety of the headwear worn in the production.




Having those tough conversations

For some students, this was the first time that they heard about the various refugees who entered or tried to enter Canada and how those stories affect their school, their community and their country. “It’s important because schools don’t often take this topic on,” says Aliah.




“It’s important that somebody takes that first step to break down the stigma around these types of topics and to make it easy to discuss because they are things that happen in people’s lives and things need to be discussed if we ever want it to become better. It’s important to educate and inform our audience in a way that’s entertaining at the same time.”

A female performer smiles at the camera while students perform on stage behind her.


A few students shared their experiences participated in ‘A Chamada’. What did they say?

Kamilia, Grade 8

“We’re showing the audience that not everybody is lucky.

The refugees sacrificed. They were on boats. They didn’t even get food. They looked like skeletons by the time they landed.


I learned a lot of things—people sacrificed a lot.”

 Nageena, Grade 8

“I learned about the refugees who tried to get away but couldn’t because Canada or other countries wouldn’t accept them. We need to bring awareness to these things. It’s really important to know what these people have gone through, what happened to them, so they aren’t forgotten.”

Pedro, Grade 7

“The play was about the gods remembering the refugees that fled from their homes to find a safe place where they could live. The gods said we must protect them but must honour those who were lost. I developed a new skill that I’m still developing: acting. I’ve been in a few plays before, but Mr. Saunders said, ‘I want acting.’ A lot of the other plays were just repeating the lines. I really enjoyed this experience.”

Candy, Grade 8

“I learned about the struggle that refugees face constantly, every day trying to find a better life for themselves. Being in such a big production, I learned how to cooperate with other people and new skills like teamwork. It was really fun. It opened my eyes to new perspectives of other people.”

Fauzia, Grade 8

“This is play that had never been done before and it’s something that people could relate to. Some members of the audience said that they cried. I honestly think I’m going to remember this for a long time. I never want to forget it.”


 

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A lover of stories and a wordsmith, Shellene Drakes-Tull has been a communicator in both the corporate world and in media for more than 15 years. Through telling the stories of TDSB students and educators, she hopes others are inspired to create more equitable, anti-racist and anti-oppressive school environments.

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