A theatrical look at a refugee’s life in Canada

Teesri Duniya Theatre is making a statement with another politically charged play, The Refugee Hotel.

The Refugee Hotel is a politically charged, dark-comedy play that chronicles the experience of Chilean refugees and pays tribute to the positive influence their Canadian hosts had on their resettlement. The play was performed in English with Spanish surtitles on a screen. Put on by the Teesri Duniya Theatre, the play features four Concordia grads, including Mariana Tayler, Sally Singal, Gilda Montreal and Charles Bender.

In the aftermath of the Chilean coup d’état in 1973, Canada welcomed over 7,000 Chilean refugees. At the time, a right-wing dictatorship seized power from the democratically-elected government. The dictatorship tortured and killed those they considered dissidents and imposed severe economic control by the state, according to Paulina Abarca-Cantin, the play’s director. Canada’s offer to these reluctant immigrants was a beacon of hope that soothed their physical and emotional pain.

Abarca-Cantin said the play is based on her story, as well as Carmen Aguirre’s, the playwright. “It is her true story and it is also mine, except that Carmen arrived in Vancouver and my family arrived in Montreal,” Abarca-Cantin said.

The play takes place in Montreal during a snowy week in February 1974. The story is told from a child’s perspective, a technique used to represent the refugees’ innocence upon arrival, explained Abarca-Cantin. She said some refugees opposed the dictatorship, while others, such as teenagers, were exiled despite not having yet formed any political leanings.

The Refugee Hotel opens with a monologue by eight-year-old Manuelita (Mariana Tayler) describing the determination and courage these refugees required to adapt to their new country. Although delivered in a child-like tone, the message is loaded with wisdom that comes from the processing of childhood memories later in life as an adult.

Much of the play takes place in a hotel, where Manuelita and her family are staying. Pat Keleman (Sally Singal), the social worker overseeing their resettlement, is caring and kind, but speaks no Spanish, causing the family to misunderstand everything she says. Each day, more Chileans arrive at the hotel and they quickly bond and share details of their escape—a cathartic and helpful part of the healing process.

The Refugee Hotel tells the tale of Chilean refugees who fled to Canada after a coup d’état overturned the government in 1973. Photo by Jean-Charles Labarre
The Refugee Hotel tells the tale of Chilean refugees who fled to Canada after a coup d’état overturned the government in 1973.
Photo by Jean-Charles Labarre

Eventually, to everyone’s relief, Bill O’Neill (Charles Bender), a Canadian NGO activist, visits the hotel and uses his not-too-fluent Spanish skills to communicate with the refugees. Having O’Neill in their corner helps the refugees understand Canada’s commitment to helping them rebuild their lives.

“My character is an activist,” Bender said. “[He] would have sat in front of the government to try to convince it to change policies [on refugees] by showing up with placards.”  He added that O’Neill “is a free-spirited kind of guy,” who worked alongside an interfaith church and helped the refugees find jobs, apartments and furniture—unlike the bureaucrat social worker who did nothing but check the boxes on her government-issued forms.

The Refugee Hotel is ultimately about love and its power to heal,” Aguirre stated in the program notes. “It is the best way I know that I can send on a love letter to new people [refugees],” Abarca-Cantin said.

The Refugee Hotel is playing everyday except Fridays, until Nov.13 at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, at 5170 Côte-Sainte-Catherine Road. Student tickets are $18.  A talk-back with the audience takes place after each performance.

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