Visa denials scuttle play with Syrian actresses at Georgetown

It had the potential to be one of the most galvanizing cultural events of the season: a dozen Syrian women, refugees from that besieged country, performing in Washington a version of a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy revised to include their own harrowing stories.

But now the show can’t go on — simply because the women are, in fact, refugees. The State Department rejected the women’s applications for entertainers’ visas for the performances — scheduled for Sept. 18-20 at Georgetown University — because it is not convinced that the women would leave.

The decision has thrown into turmoil plans for the first staging outside the Middle East of “Syria: The Trojan Women,” a production organized by ­journalist-screenwriter Charlotte Eagar, her husband, filmmaker William Stirling, and Syrian stage director Omar Abu Saada. The Syrian women they recruited, living in exile in Jordan, are all amateur actors from varying strata of Syrian society and of diverse backgrounds. Some had never set foot in a theater before working on the play. But they wanted to come here, say Georgetown organizers of the event, to give their accounts of the toll the war has taken on them and their families.

“This is the greatest tragedy, because in the United States we really don’t have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS,” said Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who is co-chair of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which organized the event. “We are completely missing this absolutely vital human perspective of the war in Syria.”

“It’s really so sad,” added Abu Saada, interviewed via Skype from Cairo, “because me and all the team, everyone was very excited about this. Now it is so sad that they will not get the chance to do it.”


“Syria: The Trojan Women” as performed in Amman, Jordan . (Lynn Alleva Lilley/Lynn Alleva Lilley)

Georgetown officials were offering “Syria: The Trojan Women” as the launching point of a two-year festival, underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, aimed at reducing ethnic and religious misconceptions by examining the culture, history and politics of the Muslim world. Flummoxed by the State Department’s decision, they are scrambling to salvage the event by turning it into a conversation with the women by remote hookup from Amman.

The scuttling of “Syria: The Trojan Women” is the second major setback in efforts to bring groundbreaking theater to Washington this fall from hot spots around the globe. Earlier this year, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was forced to cancel an ambitious festival of new plays from Russia, scheduled for late October, after cultural officials in Moscow backed away from an agreement to finance the trip by as many as 90 Russian actors, designers and directors.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer based in Fairfax, Va., who was engaged by Georgetown to consult on the “Trojan Women” application, said the denial of the women’s visas reflects a broader problem: “What’s in play is the growing involvement of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] in visa affairs, in a post 9/11 environment,” he said. “And it is affecting the arts across the board. It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved” for visas for artists.

The play, first performed last fall in a community center in Amman, Jordan’s capital, splices into Euripides’s tragedy about the surviving women of a brutal war the tales of the Syrian refugee women, some of whom lost husbands and other relatives in Syria before fleeing to Jordan. As Eagar described it in an article she wrote for the Financial Times, the production makes the leap “from Greek spears and the Towers of Ilium to air raids, mortars, snipers and shattered homes in Homs.”

And the experience has proved a profound one for the women in the play — so much so, Abu Saada recounted, that one of the actresses decided a few days before the Amman performances that she would for the first time uncover her head in public.

Plans for the North American premiere in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre were augmented by an invitation to the women from Columbia University to give an additional performance in New York. None of this was persuasive to the State Department. Although a visa for the event was granted to Abu Saada, who still maintains a residence in Damascus, the women’s applications were turned down this month by consular officials in Amman.

In a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, a State Department official, Michele T. Bond, said that the women “were refused under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” That part of the code requires applicants to prove that they have a residence abroad and, according to the department, that they have “no intention of abandoning” it.


“Syria: The Trojan Women” (Lynn Alleva Lilley/Lynn Alleva Lilley)

An additional wrinkle in this case, the department told the university in the Aug. 18 letter, was that there was no firm assurance from the Jordanians that the women would be allowed back into Jordan. “As you are aware,” wrote Bond, the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, “a significant complicating factor in these cases is that the applicants have no assurance they will be permitted to return to Jordan following their trip to the United States.”

Derek Goldman, artistic director of Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center and co-chair with Schneider of the laboratory, said that efforts to secure the visas involved contacting former and current Middle East diplomats, and even those with c
onnections to King Abdullah II of Jordan. “We thought there was so much going on our side,” Goldman said, “and that basically it should be unimpeachable that these women should be able to get here, and that it would be so obvious that they would go back.”

Of the possibility that they would seek asylum, Schneider said: “I honestly thought the fact that these women had dependent small children and dependent parents [in Jordan] and none speaks English, and they don’t have any connection in the U.S., what would be the likelihood under those circumstances that that would happen?”

To add yet another twist, Abu Saada said that he learned Thursday that the Swiss government had approved visas for the women for a visit of the production to Switzerland in November. How or whether that might possibly alter the decision by the U.S. consular officer in Jordan remains unclear. As Ginsburg noted with chagrin, the decision of the officer in the country involved tends to hold a great deal of sway within the State Department.

Goldman and Schneider say they are determined to go ahead with a program involving the play. On Sept. 19, they have in mind an evening titled “Voices Unheard: The ‘Syria: Trojan Women Summit’ ” that will include excerpts from a documentary, “Queens of Syria,” about the play and a live feed from Amman, so the women can participate.

Abu Saada and two other members of his creative team who received visas are being encouraged by Goldman and Schneider to travel to Washington for the event. But as of Thursday, the director was on the fence. Without his Trojan women, he is not sure he has the heart for it.