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In Greece, migrants relive harrowing boat journeys, but onstage

After trekking hundreds of miles through fierce climates and villages filled with murderous bandits, the migrants had finally reached their destination.

Or, at least, the boat that might carry them to it.

The vessel was a rickety thing, its white paint peeling and hull cracking. It could hardly be trusted for a Sunday picnic, let alone a 200-mile voyage across a heavily patrolled Aegean.

But the young men climbed in just the same, hoping, in the journey to Greece, to get as far as possible from their native lands. Away from crushing poverty and the vice-like grip of groups such as the Taliban. Toward Europe, whatever that was.

As they piled in the boat, Reza, a 28-year-old from Iran, recounted some of the dangers that still awaited: frostbite, cruel coast guard officers, a shipwreck.

A young man named Aydim described how, on his overland odyssey from poverty-stricken Bangladesh, he had seen a man fall unconscious in the frigid mountains and die shortly after.

"I didn't know him. I looked for his contact information but couldn't find it. So I left him there," Aydim said, his words filled with a mix of regret and pragmatism.

A voice cut in.

"Good, good. It's really working now. But we have to make sure each story stands out. And we have figure out how to get the boat into the room faster."

The migrants had undergone all that they were describing. But they were no longer on the open seas — they were in a rehearsal space in an Athens warehouse district. And the voice interjecting to keep them in line? Not a double-crossing smuggler, but Yolanda Markopoulou, one of the Athens theater scene's most venerated directors.

As Southern Europe faces a staggering influx of migrants, authorities such as the European Union border agency, Frontex, have sought to figure out issues of jurisdiction. National governments have engaged in complicated policy calculations, if not always ambitious rescue efforts. Nongovernmental organizations have tried to offer language and job training.

But in the quest for a solution, one small theater group has looked to a more unconventional place: It hopes to turn suffering into art, and art into catharsis.

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The migrant crisis has approached epic proportions in Europe: More than 100,000 have arrived on the continent this year. A daunting number have also died en route — at least 1,250 in a series of Mediterranean shipwrecks in April alone.

Greece has been at the crisis' epicenter. About 48,000 migrants have landed here since January — the second-highest number in all of Europe, and a figure that comes on top of the hundreds of thousands who've streamed into the country over the previous few years.

The migrants endure harsh circumstances on their trips, then find themselves even more adrift when they arrive. Markopoulou believed her theater group could offer an unusual way to help them cope with the trauma of displacement.

"They don't have families here, and they don't have reason to talk about what happened," said Markopoulou, who devised the program in conjunction with an NGO called AMAKA. "What's a better way to come to terms with it than a play?"

Aydim agreed. "I can now communicate to people what used to be only in my head," said the 25-year-old, who, like many migrants, asked that his last name not to be revealed because of safety concerns.

On this night, the migrants were rehearsing for a show at an Athens cultural festival. Titled "We Are the Persians," it weaves their back stories into a series of reenactments, with the goal of providing a more human picture of the migrant crisis. As they pulled the boat across the stage to represent their journeys, the scene was surreal, at once a pointed reminder of their struggles and an inadequate simulation of them.

An Afghan named Khalil practiced a scene that had him reenacting his detention by the Greek coast guard. He and other migrants picked up guns to replicate their captors' poses, then threw themselves on the floor while dramatic music played.

"They held guns to us," he belted out theatrically. "They took our money. They kept us in terrible places."

Khalil, 25, fled Afghanistan about 10 years ago at the urging of his father, who worried that an increasingly active Taliban in their town would either kill or recruit his son. After hiding out in Greece for years, he was granted asylum last year.

It might seem uncomfortable to relive, multiple times each rehearsal night, what you've spent years trying to forget. But those who went through the ordeal say that the opposite has proved to be the case. With its blend of larger artistic goals and concrete technical requirements, theater offers a unique kind of escape. The more a moment becomes about blocking, the less it's about lost friends and a fear of death.

"It was very hard at first to go through it again," Khalil said as he inhaled deeply on a cigarette during a rehearsal break. "But each time it got a little easier. And it was easy to act — all I had to do was remember the fear."

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Markopoulou and AMAKA had previously worked with prisoners, and then shortly after began working with migrants. About three years ago, she began dealing with this particular group, betting that they might take to it more easily than psychiatric therapy.

For the first year, most of the young men didn't even speak. Markopoulou, a director known for ambitious projects such as a touring version of "The Iliad," instead tried to get them comfortable moving in unusual ways. Soon she graduated to improv exercises.

And this month, she and the migrants put on a major production for the first time, staging several performances of "We Are the Persians" at the popular Athens Festival. The audience of about 150 at each performance was moved, by the stories onstage and back stories that inspired them.

The migrant actors were also paid for performing for the first time. The off-stage group — including Markopoulou and the crew of set, lighting and other designers — is typically volunteer-based and was also paid for the first time.

To some, the idea of expending effort in this way might seem strange; migrants need employment, not Eugene O'Neill. But the actors say that the advantages will stay with them a lot longer than a few added euros.

"On the one hand, I want to show how hard the trip was, because it's not really what people here think," Reza, who has a mix of swagger and thoughtfulness, said as he took a break from rehearsing. "They hear 'boats' and they don't realize what we go through. But I also do it for me, to remind me of what happened, so that I never forget."

Reza's family fled Afghanistan for Iran before he was born. As part of the Hazara minority, they spoke a dialect similar to that used by many Iranians. But Afghans weren't accorded the same rights in Iran as natives. Reza faced heavy discrimination and eventually fled. En route from Iran to the Turkish coast, a good friend died under the forbidding conditions.

For all the peril of their pre-Europe lives, migrants begin to face a new set difficulties only after they arrive. Khalil has seen his family scatter across Europe and Asia, and he hasn't seen any of them since he left Afghanistan. Reza, meanwhile, lacks an asylum card, so he can't leave the country to visit family members in Iran. Starting a new family here isn't possible either, because without those papers he is prohibited from marrying. Most of the migrants live in especially poor parts of Athens, where drug use and homelessness are high.

But they have also found reasons to be optimistic, and rehearsal is interrupted several times as the actors are struck with a case of the giggles, often in the most oppressive scenes.

In one moment from "We Are the Persians," things are so bleak on the boat that there is only one way to respond. Aydim gets up and begins singing and dancing, prompting others on board to join in.

"I had a lot of fear when I first arrived," Aydim said, sitting on the sidelines during a short break a few minutes later. "But I learned that there's not much to be afraid of anymore."

He stood up to return to rehearsal, gesturing to the set: "Because whatever happens on that boat, it's always the floor under it, not water."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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