The key is laughter

by Nora Schüssler

What happens to your body when you laugh? Your chest muscles and diaphragm contract, sending air out of your lungs in a whoosh that vibrates your larynx. If you laugh, you use fifteen muscles, just in your face. Your heart pumps harder and causes your tear ducts to activate. When you crack up, you produce endorphins, and your body reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol.  Also, your pain tolerance gets a temporary boost! Laughing affects your own body and mind as much as it affects the room and the people standing in that room. The air seems sweeter and the colors seem more intense. And that is exactly what happened last Friday at Pathos Theater in Munich.

Pathos Theatre Munich.
Friday, 16th october 2015. 3pm.

A group of people with red clowns’ noses on their faces approaches the refugee accommodation for unaccompanied underaged refugees and meets six girls from Nigeria, Somalia und Eritrea. Some of them understand English others speak with hands and feet. Soon the girls decide to join the cheerful group and together with four doubtful looking boys from Afghanistan they arrive at the theatre, where they are greeted with cookies and a comfortable looking living-room couch. There is a lot of nervous giggling and carefully asked questions. ‚Where do you come from?‘ ‚What’s your name?‘ ‚Do you speak a little bit of German?‘

No one dares to ask the obvious questions, yet: Where are your parents? Where is the rest of your family? Is your family still alive? How old are you and how did you get here? What did you have to face in order to arrive in Munich? Will your family try to follow you? What happens to you if you are to go back to your home country? And, most importantly: Why have you come here?

Imagine there is a war in your country. Imagine that you have to leave your home in order to survive. Imagine you go on a journey without your parents, without your family. It is just you and the money your family has saved so that you can have a chance for a better life in another part of the world.

The unimaginable happened to these children and young teenagers in front of us.

They might have lost everything in order to arrive in a country where they are accepted for the moment but not welcome forever. They are even frowned upon, because in the current situation, Germany doesn’t want refugees from countries like Nigeria, Somalia or Eritrea — mainly refugees, who flee their poverty and not war or death. Germany has started to differentiate between ‚good‘ refugees and ‚bad‘ refugees. They are happy to show Syrian groups of people on TV saying polite Thank-You-Germany phrases into the camera. The ‚good‘ refugees can stay. They are educated and wealthy. The ‚bad‘ refugees get to see a different face of Germany.

I don’t want to judge those who don’t welcome everyone into our country. I accept their arguments against open border policy. At the same time, I don’t understand why we even talk about closing borders: it won’t stop anyone from coming in the long run. Europe experiences a migration wave the size of a tsunami and a wall, a fence or unfriendly police officers won’t stop it. And this is why we should rather ask the question of how we can cope with all these new people and new cultures that flood our country. Because we will have to deal with them no matter what.

And another question about morality is raised. We aren’t allowed to discriminate against refugees. However, it seems okay that we differentiate between those, whose life is in danger, and those, who just don’t want to be poor anymore. Isn’t it natural to flee poverty as much as it is to flee from death? When does justified existential fear because of poverty become the latter?

These questions cannot be answered easily in a theatre workshop. However, the voices raising questions in my mind became louder and louder after I had experienced the girls in our workshop. They come from poor countries and might have experienced acts of violence against them because of their religion, their sex or other. They were sent on a journey that led them to Munich, where they live with no parents to guide them within a strange culture around them and — this is the awful truth — with no one really in Germany who cares enough about them to make sure they are safe for good.

How do they cope? I have no idea. But the girls seem happy for the moment, and when we turn on the music for ‚Stop-Tanz‘ (a game, where you dance as wild and hard as you can until the music stops and you freeze), the girls show us that they are the embodiment of life itself. And they laugh a lot. They laugh when the music starts. They laugh when the music is turned off. They laugh whilst dancing and they laugh whilst watching everyone else dance. The dancing is followed by pantomimes where the girls happily put their imagination to a test. And — naturally — there is a lot of laughing. Their laugh might be a coping mechanism. Maybe it is a way of dealing with the foreign, cold country or with the journey they have faced. Or maybe they just like to laugh.

More importantly, their laugh is contagious: the oh-so-serious Germans and the sceptic boy from Afghanistan start laughing with them. And suddenly a bond is made. A bond between six African girls, four boys from Afghanistan and six German adults. Then and there the whole group makes a decision: We create a safe space together, where we are able to imagine our own world. In here, in this very room, the theater, we don’t have to be haunted by our everyday lives or by the harsh reality that we are about to face. We become free and safe at the same time.

It is my intention to make theatre, because I truly believe in a safe space like this. And for our girls and boys the Pathos Theater Munich became this space — at least for a few moments.

Nora Schüssler is the dramaturge of the German Phone Home team. She studied literature, philosophie and directing and works as a theatre director, dramatist and dramaturge