‘When life changes and becomes harder, adapt yourself to be stronger’

Syrian refugees in the UK reflect on the COVID-19 lockdown and their experiences of conflict in Syria in a new video series




When COVID-19 caused the UK to go into lockdown in mid-March 2020, the North Yorkshire based theatre and media arts company An Invisible Man faced indefinite suspension of its performances and activities. This included a series of workshops for resettled Syrian refugee boys living in Leeds, commissioned by Leeds City Council, which aimed to introduce participants to a range of media and arts approaches that they could use to amplify their voices and tell their stories.


Reflecting on what the company could do during lockdown to continue its work in bringing marginalised voices into the mainstream, company director Stephen Burke explains, “we were struggling to come to terms with what being in lockdown meant for our lives, but here in Leeds we have a group of people - Syrian refugees - who have already experienced lockdown, under far more difficult circumstances. So we thought: they’re here, they’re a positive resource and they can advise us, and with the support we have from Leeds City Council we can help them to do that”.


To find refugee interviewees willing to share their thoughts and experiences on film, An Invisible Man worked with participants from the original workshop project and partnered with Damasq, a Syrian-led organisation based in Leeds, to reach out to the wider Syrian community in Leeds. 


As Damasq director Sawsan Zaza recalls, “working with the Community Team at Leeds City Council and An Invisible Man was a great opportunity to share Syrian refugees’ reflections on their experiences of the war back home and here during COVID-19, to touch people’s hearts and help them feel connected". Explaining his motivations for participating in the project, interviewee Ayman Hamzeh said, "I wanted to be part of a positive message and to spread hope. It was an opportunity for me to share my experiences back in Syria, to stress that nothing is impossible, and to make public my wish for the nation to stay safe and stay positive".


Each participant was interviewed on several occasions via Zoom, in either English or Arabic, and An Invisible Man edited interview footage to produce 6 short films focused on the following thematic areas:


Coping with adversity

Accessing food and other vitals in difficult times

Educating children in a time of crisis

Keeping children safe from harm

Coping with separation from loved ones

Using technology to keep in touch


As Stephen recalls of the editing process, “our challenge was to honour and value the contributions of the refugees we interviewed, while at the same time making sure that the films were punchy enough to get our message across to viewers, primarily social media users, in a very short space of time. It was quite a balancing act!”. 


Reflecting on what he took away from the project, Stephen says, “It’s the same thing as I’ve always taken away from working with refugees: vast optimism and positivity, despite everything. But here I think we also show that refugees are very far from being objects of pity, and are instead living examples of just how resilient people can be in the most adverse of circumstances. That’s a valuable perspective to have in our midst, and a real gift for our society”. For Sawsan Zaza, “the films really show how the war has caused the loss of extended family life, which for us Syrians is a hugely important part of our culture, and how this has impacted the lives of those who have found safety here in Leeds. At Damasq we will continue to seek any opportunity to share Syrian or any other refugee voices, experiences and challenges". 


The films are linked above, and can also be viewed via the project’s YouTube homepage and the Leeds City Council Facebook page. For more information on An Invisible Man, including their hugely successful interactive workshop and play on the experiences of Syrian refugees ‘How to be Lucky’, visit www.aninvisibleman.co.uk.