Refuge: Two kinds of goods

A work of fiction inspired by real events, playwright Mary Vingoe’s Refuge explores the two sides of the refugee situation – the ‘two goods.’

It’s about who we are, what we want to protect; it’s about two rival goods – the idea of two principles. They are both good (protecting your own family and reaching out to strangers are very good things). They come into conflict at the same time. Refuge looks at this conflicting of goods and that’s where the heart of the conflict lies,” says Vingoe.

The play will be presented at the Firehall Arts Centre from March 18 to April 1.

A Canadian context for refugees

Vingoe was inspired to write Refuge after listening to the CBC documentary Habtom’s Path, which tells the story of an Eritrean man who tried to claim refugee status in Canada in 2009 when he arrived illegally to Halifax.

“It could have happened anywhere in Canada. It’s very much a ‘Canadian story’ because it’s also about the Canadian legal system and how it dealt with him,” she says.

In Refuge, a granddaughter of one of the victim’s of the 1985 Air India Attack takes in an Eritrean army deserter. She has a perspective that is coloured by her family’s loss at the hands of terrorists, and she finds herself many years later revisiting a relationship she had with a lawyer who devotes his life to helping people get into the country.

“There’s a lot of backstory about their personal relationship. It’s a complex story,” Vingoe says.

Vingoe learned a lot about the refugee claimant process through her research and interviewing people, particularly legal professionals.

“I went, ‘oh my god.’ I had no idea this is what a refugee claimant goes through. I had no idea what the process was like, the issues or how [the refugees] were evaluated. I think 99 per cent of Canadians didn’t know anything about it. For me, it was a journey of discovery,” says Vingoe.

The question of two goods. | Photo by Emily Cooper

Vingoe says that while Canadians may appear to be very welcoming of refugees, there’s still a big backlog of people who have been waiting.

“We’ve shut the door on them,” she says.

Vingoe explains that the play is also about many issues, not just legal ones but human ones as well.

“What I wanted to do was imagine a Canadian context for him – what I wanted to get at was the question of two goods: the good of helping a stranger and good of protecting your family. I think that’s at the core of many people’s fears about refugees and immigrants. It’s not that they’re bad and we’re good or we’re bad and they’re good – it’s these two primal instincts,” she says.

Where reality and imagination meet

Vingoe says the play has two timelines, both set in 2008–2009 during the Harper government, which is when the real-life event with the Eritrean refugee took place. One timeline is moving forward and the other is moving backwards from the same point.

Mary Vingoe. | Photo by Emily Cooper

“The lawyer at the centre of it is inspired by a local lawyer here who has done a great deal of work in immigration and refugee law,” Vingoe says.

Vingoe recognizes that there’s been a real polarization of two groups: those who are anti-refugees and anti-immigrants and others who consider themselves liberal and welcoming. But she says it’s a much more complex situation. She hopes that people are able to read deeper than the headlines and right into the lives of the people who try to come to this country as well as that of those who try to help them.

“There are some very incredible people doing incredible work. [They deal with] institutional problems people aren’t aware of, so I hope you come away with a deeper appreciation of what it’s like to be a refugee claimant but also what it’s like to really help someone in this country,” says Vingoe.

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