World Refugee Day is observed every year on 20 June, to draw attention to the plight of the millions of people around the world forced to leave their home countries due to war, conflict and persecution.

“Excuse us for being here. Excuse us for stealing your time. Excuse us.”

Chanting in unison, the actors take the stage, apologising yet unapologetic, demanding to be heard.

On the evening before this year’s World Refugee Day, the “Junge Burg” production of “Gimme Shelter” celebrated its premiere. Featuring a cast of 30 young refugees from 12 different countries, the piece incorporates a mix of acting, dance and song. The collage format already indicates the multiplicity of stories that make up the refugee experience.

“Junge Burg” is an initiative of Vienna’s famous Burgtheater, which organises theatre projects for young people. Following the suggestion of and in cooperation with the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) Vienna and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Austria,  the Junge Burg-team introduced a new theatre workshop for young refugees and asylum seekers in September 2014.  After 10 months of weekly rehearsals, the young actors finally presented their play “Gimme Shelter” on 19, 21 and 25 June 2015 at the Junge Burg festival in Vienna.  

“After spending three months in Austria, I was able to take part in a dance workshop. The dance teacher thought I was talented, and recommended me for this play. I’m very grateful to the ‘Junge Burg’ Team for this great opportunity! Dancing and acting is a lot of fun,” says Javid, a 23-year-old refugee from Afghanistan and aspiring filmmaker.

The topic of refugees and asylum-seekers is frequently discussed in Austrian media and society, but rarely are the voices of the refugees in question heard. “Gimme Shelter” is an attempt to change the way refugees are portrayed. The performance was developed in a collaborative process, featuring contributions and stories from the young actors who refuse to let themselves be defined by their refugee status alone.

The project was also a testimony to the integrating potential of theatre and the arts in general. All participants spoke German to varying degrees, and during the podium discussion after the premiere, the director recounted how, as a result, rehearsals would often produce interesting and creative results that became part of the final piece. By the end of the rehearsal period, many participants were able to greatly improve their German language skills as well.

The collaboration with “Junge Burg” and the theatre workshop is a continuation of a long-standing partnership between UNIS Vienna and UN Refugee Agency UNHCR to raise awareness about the situation of refugees among Austrian youth and society. Other joint projects on this topic are regular workshops for teachers on how to teach the UN and refugee protection in school, the Youth Short Film Competition on Human Rights in cooperation with This Human World film festival, and special guided tours during the UNHCR Long Day of Flight.


Photo credit: Burgtheater, Reinhard Werner