Theatre Review - Khadija is 18

Most of the refugee stories we read about in the media are negative. But many asylum seekers are torture survivors who have fled to the UK and live in a terrifying limbo - acutely aware that each morning they wake up could be their last day in safety. For some, if they are sent back they face the prospect of further torture and even death.

Khadija is 18 focuses on two teenage girls, living as refugees in east London. Khaidija (Aysha Kala) is originally from Afghanistan, although so Anglicised that she speaks like any other streetwise teenager in London and has adopted many of the mannerisms and cultural codes of her Nigerian boyfriend Ade (Victor Alli). She lives in a hostel with Liza (Katherine Rose Morley), a young eastern European, and her baby who, we learn, is actually her sister.

The two girls await their eighteenth birthdays with trepidation. They arrived in the UK as children and were classified as "unaccompanied" by the state. On reaching adulthood they will receive a decision on their residence claims and both are terrified of being returned to their native countries.

Shamser Sinha writes from experience - he is a lecturer in Sociology and Youth Studies, and has spent the past ten years working with young asylum seekers and vulnerable teenagers in London. His play is also hugely topical. According to the Refugee Council, in 2011 17,700 children applied for asylum having arrived in the country of refuge alone, with no parent or guardian. 1,277 of these applications were made in the UK.

Rather than focus on the girls' past and what led them to seek asylum, Sinha portrays their life in London. The two girls go to college, and Khaidija works, illegally as a cleaner to supplement her meagre benefits. Liza has to look after the baby and struggles to find the time to learn English. Both are desperate to assimilate and both bear the brunt of casual racism. They are often derided as "refs" and snide comments are made about Liza's ability to attract council housing because of her baby, despite the fact that she is living in a hostel.

Given Sinha's admirable credentials, I was surprised that he didn't paint a more positive portrait of asylum seekers. He concentrates instead on the girls' petty rivalries, their sexual experiences and their betrayals of one another. It is only in the play's heart-breaking and powerful ending that Sinha demonstrates Khadija's very real terror at the thought of being returned.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend Khadija is 18. It raises important issues and Sinha has an excellent ear for teenagers' street-slang. Fly Davis's set - slate blocks and concrete slabs - gives a palpable sense of the bleaker side of London. Tim Stark gets the most out of his young cast, the performances are pitch-perfect, and his imaginative staging makes effective use of the Finborough's tiny space.
Khadija is 18 is running at the Finborough Theatre until 24 November 2012
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