A woman stands in floral dress, holding a microphone, on a stage with lighting behind her.

Humanising the migrant story: Meet the refugee comedy collective

Sara Pascoe, Live at the Apollo and Taskmaster star, headlined the April edition of the refugee comedy collective at Soho Theatre

The project sees new comics from refugee and migrant backgrounds performing alongside some of the UK’s top stand-ups. 

No Direction Home is presented by Counterpoints Arts, an organisation that support the arts by and about refugees, with Show and Tell, an award-winning production company. 

Counterpoints Arts producer Tom Green said the event served to challenge stereotypes and media depictions which showed refugees as victims or threats.

Green said: “The truth it that a refugee is just like you and me and this event hopes to connect with peoples experience and appreciate them on their own terms as a full human.”

Starting in 2018, the project has supported over 50 new comics from migrant backgrounds, even succeeding through covid by providing stand-up over zoom.

Green spoke of the hundreds of people chuckling silently over their cameras or laughing with their hands using British Sign Language, as laughter in the background would have disrupted the comedy.

Green also reflected on advice that Tom Parry, a comedian who supports the programme, told the participants.

Parry advised them to not try to be funny but rather to be interesting in a humorous way, as it is not so much about telling jokes but more about talking about your point of view interestingly.

Green explained how comedy is empowering for people but having moments of connection with the audience is a huge part of stand-up.

He said: “For some people to be behind the mic, saying whatever they choose to say, making people laugh and representing themselves on their own terms can be really empowering.

“Stand up is international, some people do it because they can be funny but we’ve had people who want to challenge themselves or people with anxiety.”

Selam Amare, 33, is one example of this.

After attending an event as an audience member, the second generation refugee emailed Tom to get involved.

Four workshop sessions later, she was performing on the same stage that she was previously viewing from the audience.

She said: “I have anxiety but it felt great when it was done and I had caught the bug.”

Amare has since gone onto help produce the shows too, saying that she organically grew with Counterpoints Arts as they gave her the opportunity, she took on more responsibility.

She added: “I love it, I love organising and I love giving opportunities to people that they wouldn’t normally have that’s like my dream job.”

Amare’s day job consists of working in the programmes department of Blueprint for All, a Lewisham charity helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in their chosen career.

She said: “I was doing producing before I was even producing, I thought it meant you had to be a technical person but instead I was just helping create these events.”

Amare believes it is a massive achievement to present at Soho Theatre but hopes the collective can keep growing, with aspirations for a group to go to Glastonbury.

She said: “There’s a narrative of them and us: comedy is the medium that breaks that.

“Humanising the migrant refugee story, I’ve seen there are comedy groups at Latitude so we just need the foot in to get to the bigger scale.”

It’s not just famous comics on-stage that are showing the support,.

Lemn Sissay OBE, a Bafta nominated international prize winning writer, has tweeted his support, encouraging the collective and suggesting that it needs to be brought to Manchester. 

Counterpoints Arts hopes to expand further, with new projects this year focusing on mental health, arts and refugees.

Green explained there is already a natural filtering system as comics do not want the audience to feel unsafe.

He said: “It’s a natural human instinct to turn bad things that have happened to you after time into something funny.”

The introduction of more workshops and an increased ability to tour means that more people could be brought together, finding a fresh perspective on their own life experience.

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