Mohamed Sarrar is a talented, young musician. We met in 2015 when I was running the Good Chance Theatre in Calais, founded by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis there. Mohamed arrived at the unofficial camp known as ‘The Jungle’ after travelling across Europe following his sudden departure from Sudan.
In his home town, Mohamed had worked as a wedding singer in his spare time. He told me that music was in his blood: his uncle is a famous singer in Sudan (“the Ambassador of Sudanese Songs”) and his parents supported and ‘believed in my voice’.
After leaving Sudan he travelled through Libya to the coast where he was held by smugglers while he waited to cross the Mediterranean.
‘We call it mazraha [a warehouse]. In this place we are just like prisoners. We can’t do anything but sleep and eat and wait until they take us to the boat to cross. We can’t make noise at all. I didn’t have the time to sing - I was just thinking if I was going to die’.
He eventually boarded a boat to Sicily with 80 other migrants. ‘In the sea you can’t think of anything. You just think, am I going to survive?’
When Mohamed arrived in Calais, the camp’s population was at its highest with over 8,000 people living there. He had experienced isolation during his journey across Europe. Now it was intensified. ‘I grew up in a village where every morning you have tea with your neighbours. [In the camp] you don’t spend time with your people. You are on your own, sleep alone and wake up on your own. This is my life now.’
Soon after arriving, Mohamed saw the white dome of the Good Chance Theatre.
‘I was curious about what that building was, this big tent. I found some people dancing and I remember there were lots of drums and instruments. And we started singing!’
Mohamed was always joyful in his performances in the theatre’s Hope Shows, but I remember one performance when he cried throughout a song. When I asked him why, he told me it was ‘a song about missing families and missing your home.’
The Good Chance dome became a place of reflection and escape for Mohamed, as it was for so many living in the Jungle. ‘I loved being on stage performing, singing, doing music. I forget everything. Forget the camp, forget this shit place.’
During his time in Calais, Mohamed wrote many songs inspired by his experiences, which he performed regularly in the theatre.
It’s enough, we are fed up. We are fed up with the Jungle. I am fed up and don’t want to try again. I can’t do anything. I surrender.
He wrote ‘Abbas Khalas’ (translated as ‘Police Finished’) on a three-hour walk back to the camp from the train station. He had been hiding there for two days in an effort to jump onto a cargo train bound for the UK. The song describes his frustration with the police after they caught him and sent him back to the camp:
I’ve been hiding myself for a day now. And the second day is coming. The security guards came looking for us. And they caught us before the train is leaving.
This song brought him recognition in the camp and he would often move from tent to tent, singing it continuously. ‘People would say, “We’ve got tea, we’ve got coffee, we’ve got everything you want, just come and sing!” People loved it. We became “Jungle famous”!’
After finally crossing into the UK, Mohamed began playing in a Sudanese Community Centre in London and was soon asked to perform at weddings and in concerts. He has since taken part in workshops at the National Theatre and performed internationally in a devised show about Calais, Borderline. In his West End debut in The Jungle he sings his song ‘Abbas Khalas’. ‘Through this song I feel like I’m telling the story of many people’.
‘All the plays I have done in the UK are about the situation in Calais, about the refugee crisis and the journeys. So when I do shows it’s not about myself’.
‘My mother is proud of me. Not because I do music and perform, but because I do shows about migrants and refugees. She is very proud of me.’
Amy Reade is the Good Chance Creative Consultant for The Jungle. She worked in Calais from 2015-2016.