• The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe offers a story of survival and strength. (Supplied to SBS.)
Two women from The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe talk about their very different journeys to bring light out of darkness.
By
Sharon Verghis

15 Jun 2017 - 4:15 PM  UPDATED 19 Jun 2017 - 4:20 PM

Yordanos Haile-Michael came to Australia in 2000, a refugee from war-torn Eritrea, in eastern Africa.

At age five, she was kidnapped, tortured, sexually abused and forced to become a child soldier. Haille-Michael tells me she doesn’t know how old she is today. Markers of time that we take for granted were not available for someone rendered so profoundly rootless, “motherless and homeless”, as she puts it, by war.

In 2013, while at the NSW STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivor) refugee counseling centre in western Sydney, she noticed Ros Horin, a Sydney writer and theatre director, chatting to a few other refugee women from Africa. Horin was researching a new project and gathering stories – some of them harrowing. Haile-Michael was curious. “I thought, I’ll go along with her and see what it’s about.”

"There was a personal need to unburden themselves, to be understood by someone else who had been through it.”

She was introduced to Horin and liked her. They had coffee and chatted. Eventually her own story spilled out – a terrible litany of pain and suffering. Horin would later say “it was as if a dam had been breached” – not just with Haile-Michael but the three other women she had built a bond with over several months: Aminata Conteh-Biger, Yarrie Bangura and Rosemary Kariuki.

Horin introduced the four women to each other and said there was an instinctive, visceral bond. “Their stories just poured out, it was as if they couldn’t hold their secrets in anymore," says Horin. "There was a personal need to unburden themselves, to be understood by someone else who had been through it.”

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe

Still, it was a delicate process of building trust, cleaving through suspicion, ingrained secrecy and layers of scar tissue to reveal the rawness beneath. Haile-Michael says she feared the trauma of flashbacks, and contemplating pulling out of the process, but eventually made peace with her decision to speak out.

Gradually, Horin decided to make a play featuring the women, not actors as she had planned (“they were so compelling and charismatic”) and in 2013, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe debuted at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta.

It was a sensation, with audiences cheering, and even weeping as Haile-Michael and the others revealed their tales, inspiring and graphic in equal measure. The play went on to gather equally glowing responses at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre and the Sydney Opera House, eventually having a UK tour.

“There is a difference between hearing and listening. If there is someone out there who values you and really listens and sees you, it is so important.”

Every time it played, audiences – including many former refugee women and victims of sexual abuse - would come up afterwards to talk to them, Haile-Michael recalls.

“There is a difference between hearing and listening. If there is someone out there who values you and really listens and sees you, it is so important.”

After the play’s debut, Horin began to explore the idea of making a documentary about the experience. Over three years, she worked on the project, building it around earlier filmed workshops and rehearsals taken during the making of the play in 2011.

The documentary, also called The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, aired last year and garnered huge critical praise. (It will be shown on SBS this Sunday, June 18; the network will also screen on demand two spin-off programs, Dateline’s Daughter of Sierra Leone, following Aminata’s story, and anInsight episode featuring Yordanos.)

Among its many fans was filmmaker George Miller. Horin laughs, almost in disbelief. “It was lovely… he was really blown away.”

The documentary, like the play, has gone on to enjoy a vibrant second life. “So far we’ve been with it to 11 film festivals, four in Australia. We have been to Mumbai, where a women’s group has picked it up, it’s being dubbed into Hindi so they can take it to the slums and community groups. I also just found out last week we have gotten into the Durban film festival…they are going to be taking it into the townships.”

In Australia, Horin says there is healthy demand for the documentary to feature in community screenings. “We’ve had so many in the last six months – people get onto our website and they can get the film and screen it to 20 people, 50 people, 100 people. Each week we get two-to-three inquiries, schools are taking it. I’m currently working on a cut down 52-minute version of it because we now have an international television sales agent. But it will also be helpful for social impact screenings. We want to take it to show police, immigration people, people who work with refugees, frontline workers.”

For Horin, it is a demonstration of the power of art – films, theatre, documentaries – to act as agents of social justice and change.

And for Haile-Michael, now a mother of four, studying and working in aged care, it is testimony of the power of storytelling to heal, nurture and strengthen individuals and communities.

"We manage to do the most hurtful things, but we can love too.”

“My story is a story of hope. I learnt so much about myself, that I am not a bitter, twisted, damaged human being.. that I can love and be loved. For me, it has been incredible to be seen, to be heard, to be valued just like another human being, to know that we may go through something bad, but if you survive, it means you can recover.

“Doing the play, I met hundreds of people, and I received so many hugs, so much love. So it’s also taught me a lot about other human beings. We manage to do the most hurtful things, but we can love too.”


World Refugee Day will be held on Tuesday 20 June and Refugee Week will be run nationwide from Sunday 18 June. To mark the occasion, SBS On Demand will air a number of groundbreaking and moving shows capturing refugee stories throughout the week.  

  • The documentary, Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, will air on SBS on Sunday 18 June at 10.30pm.
  • The Insight episode 'Getting Better’ focusing on Yordanos’s healing journey will be available on SBS On Demand. 
  • A special episode of Dateline, ‘Daughter of Sierra Leonne’ (the story of Aminata, who is also from the troupe) will be available on SBS On Demand. 
  • Black Market: Syrian Refugee Girls will be available to watch on SBS On Demand.
  • The Forgotten Orphan Refugees will be available to watch on SBS On Demand. 

To know more about each show, click here.

To access the 'Refugee Week' collection on SBS On Demand, click here. 

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