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Center for Core Curriculum co-sponsors Syria:Trojan Women event

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On September 29, the Center for the Core Curriculum, the Global Mental Health Program and Refuge Drama Productions, a London-based company specializing in drama therapy productions, sponsored a panel, discussion and screening in Lerner Hall with the Syria: Trojan Women project, a group of Syrian women refugees in Amman, Jordan who have produced a modern day adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women.

The project, which began in 2013 to help refugees cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental disorders through their participation in the performing arts, had originally planned to perform their all-female-cast production of Euripides’ The Trojan Women at Columbia. But, as The Washington Post reported on August 28, “the State Department rejected the women’s applications for entertainers’ visas.” As a result, the event was restructured so that the women could share their experiences with the Columbia community from afar.

The event was moderated by Dr. Kathleen Pike, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology, executive director and scientific co-director of the Global Mental Health Program, and associate director of Health and Aging Policy Fellows Program. It included a Skype conversation, broadcast on a large screen, with cast members from their current home in Jordan. The women shared their experiences and discussed their preparation for the performance at Amman’s National Theater in fall 2013. Georgina Paget and Charlotte Eagar, producers from Refuge Drama Productions, also shared behind-the-scenes stories of the production and showed a documentary about the creative process.

From the outset, despite their lack of experience acting, the Syrian women were determined to voice what they had encountered during the ongoing Syrian war through their portrayals of the characters and the characters’ experiences, with which the Syrian women identify. In the documentary, a member of the cast, Zaeemah, said, “I want my voice to be heard everywhere – so that everyone can feel us.” Another cast member, Fatima, discussed the ways in which she identified with characters from the play, such as Andromache, the wife of Hector, the prince and the mightiest fighter in Troy as depicted in the play. Andromache is eventually enslaved by the Greeks. “We were all queens in our own houses. It is like us: We lost everything,” Fatima said.

Helene Foley, professor of classics at Barnard and a member of the panel, discussed the implications of an all-female cast, noting that she believes art creates an ideal distance from one’s own situation and makes one reflect upon what he or she is engaging in. Helen Verdeli, adjunct assistant professor of medical psychology, spoke about the therapeutic value of community support in the Syria Trojan Women project. “Arts and drama play very powerful roles in collective healing,” she said.

Columbia students in the audience were eager to celebrate the achievements of the cast. During a Q&A with the audience at the end of the event, one student commented that she had learned the power of narrative at Columbia, noting that a tale is able to move us and make a difference. The event urged Columbia students to use what they learn in class to deal with real life trauma, encouraging students to work for a substantial change in their community. 

— Tracy Shen CC’17