More than six years ago, a large crowd formed a circle inside a Syrian refugee camp, creating a mock stage. Bart Pitchford, a U.S. soldier, stood in the midst of the commotion waiting as a group of actors settled onto the platform.
Whether the actors were about to depict a friend addicted to the unregulated but degenerative drug, Khat, touch on damages caused by legally marrying off young girls to older men for money, or discuss being stripped of their citizenship by war, Pitchford and the audience knew one thing—this theater was one of the only places where the camp’s people could express their political voice.
It’s been six years since Pitchford permanently returned from overseas. But now, as part of his dissertation, the UT Theater and Dance PhD candidate is flying back to the Middle East for the next four months. He plans to study theater’s role as a common pastime in most refugee camps by observing a major refugee base, the Zaatari Refugee Camp. “I’m researching the way performance is used as a way of reimagining the idea of citizenship,” he says.
When he was deployed in 2006, Pitchford served as part of a U.S. military information support team in nations such as Yemen and Pakistan, developing programs aimed at building communication. “The U.S. has goals they want to attain,” he says. “One side is the ‘hearts and minds’ idea that we need to engage with the populations of a country so we can help them understand our strategic interests and how they align with theirs.”
Using his extensive background in theater, which includes a master’s in the subject from Louisiana Tech, Pitchford helped create programs that used the art form as a communication tool. He remembered learning about theater practitioners that use theater as a way to build trust and address social issues.
Pitchford and his team would gather people from the camp, sit them down and pose a question. They’d typically ask the refugees what they were interested in discussing, often leading to topics that touched their lives on a very local level. The Americans would then remove themselves from the interaction and watch as the residents wrote a script or performed an improv skit related to their chosen issue.
“The primary purpose is to engage with this subject,” Pitchford says. “It’s not always about the end result—the purpose is helping each other understand.”
The Zaatari Refugee Camp, a 1.3 square-mile base that opened in 2012, is temporarily home to just under 80,000 people mainly from Da’ara, one of the first cities involved in the current Syrian civil war. Although the camp is not much different than others, the people in this specific community have begun creating a stronger, more permanent residence than most.
While every refugee camp has a black market in some form, the Zaatari residents have built their own small economy, so sustainable that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has dubbed it the Champs-Elysees. They’ve also started replacing their tents with what Pitchford said are “essentially storage units,” to form more durable homes. The UNHCR is working toward getting corporate economies to invest in the camp in hopes of building a sustainable city.
“I think that’s a wonderful way to look at things,” Pitchford says. “But even if that happens, Jordan will not name the people citizens. Who’s to say Jordan won’t come in and take over? Without those rights that come with citizenship, it doesn’t solve the full problem.”
During his time studying the camp, Pitchford wants to address an increasingly discussed theory that, at some point in time, standard citizenship as something that belongs to people inside of a nation will no longer exist. “What will citizenship look like when we don’t have nations anymore?” he says. He also plans to compare theater when it’s used by Syrians who are simply looking to build their communities to when it’s used by an outside agency such as the U.S.
“Is this international intervention helping, hurting, progressing, or decreasing the rate of stability in the community?” he says.
Although he has to leave his wife and two kids behind and is unsure of his access to the Zaatari community, Pitchford has few apprehensions, especially security-wise: “I could go to New York City and have a better chance of getting killed than in Amman.” His only real concern is making sure he constantly checks his privilege as a Westerner, something he wishes he’d done during his time in the military.
“I wasn’t as cognizant of how my actions could potentially influence their lives,” he says. “It didn’t occur to me that the idea of Western citizenship was maybe not the right thing to be pushing. It needs to come from the community.”
Pitchford, who arrived in Amman on Jan. 20, recently launched a HornRaiser crowdfunding campaign to raise money for not only his travel and living expenses but also to give back to the community he will be working with. More than anything, he says he wants to amplify refugees’ voices.
“If I can find a way to make that happen, then above and beyond anything else, this will be a successful trip,” he says.
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