An Afghan Asylum Seeker in Ireland Runs for Office in “Sweet Afton”

The audio play makes good use of its svelte 20-minute running time, telling a story of race, politics and mental health that is as moving as it is enlightening.

Performance - Shahjehan Khan HOT MIC: Shahjehan Khan plays Kazim, an immigrant who struggles in limbo after fleeing Afghanistan. (Adam Liberman)

About four years ago, a transgender man named Delroy Mpofu fled Zimbabwe. He sought asylum in Ireland, becoming part of Direct Provision and Dispersal, a for-profit system of so-called accommodation centers— which can be anything from a former convent to a trailer park—where people in need of international protection live while their applications are pending.

If Mpofu, whose story was chronicled in a 2019 article in The New Yorker, had sought international protection in the United States, he probably would have been treated brutally. Yet when it comes to immigration, “better than the U.S.” is barely a compliment. Mpofu remained in Direct Provision for 11 months, and some refugees are detained for more than three years, an ordeal that can lead to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In Corrib Theatre’s world-premiere audio play Sweet Afton, playwright Jaki McCarrick and director Tracy Cameron Francis imagine what would happen if a victim of Direct Provision tried to transcend their trauma by running for office. It’s a saga that merits a longer play, but Sweet Afton makes good use of its svelte 20-minute running time, telling a story of race, politics and mental health that is as moving as it is enlightening.

Sweet Afton stars Shahjehan Khan and Fatima Wardak as Kazim and Leila Karimi, two siblings who have fled Afghanistan and languished in the Direct Provision system for five years. When Kazim and Leila discover proof on an ancestry website that their grandfather was Irish, they realize that the connection will allow them to obtain Irish passports and enter Kazim as a candidate for local government.

McCarrick is less interested in the granular details of running for office in Ireland than she is in the emotional struggles of Kazim, Leila and Andrea (Lauren Bloom Hanover), who aids them in their battle to save others from the cruelties they have endured. She pays particular attention to the toll that Direct Provision exacts on Kazim’s mind in a subplot that starts coming into focus when Leila warns Andrea not to call her brother “crazy.”

In the first scene of Sweet Afton, we hear Kazim chatting with his mother on the phone, casually discussing topics like the weather in Ireland and whether he wears a hat. Several scenes later, Leila explains to Andrea that no one is on the other end of the line—their mother is dead. Even as Kazim looks toward his future as a politician, he is mired in the past, unable to stop conversing with a woman he knows is long gone.

The New Yorker article described how Direct Provision—which, for many years, prohibited asylum seekers from working or cooking their own meals—caused people to regress. That reality is what makes Kazim’s struggle not just the story of one man, but the story of many people who have come face to face with an establishment that essentially tries to turn them into helpless children.

While McCarrick’s script engages with these ideas emphatically, Sweet Afton leaves your mind swimming with questions, like what happens after the election and whether Leila had to flee Afghanistan because she is LGBTQ+. McCarrick is under no obligation to spell out all the answers, but the play’s mysteries and complexities cry out for a sequel.

A hunger for more shouldn’t overshadow McCarrick’s achievements. “Before I came to Ireland, I was a medical student,” Kazim says in a speech. “My sister, a professor of literature. We have been in DP for five years. By now, we have lost our skills.” With eloquence and passion, Sweet Afton speaks through Kazim, declaring that he, Leila and everyone else who has experienced the dehumanization of Direct Provision deserves more than a life in limbo. It’s a play, but it’s also a rallying cry.

Sweet Afton focuses on where Kazim and Leila are now and where they’ll go next, but the specter of their home looms. Now that the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan is underway and the Taliban has retaken control of the country, the play is haunted by the reality that we’re on the verge of witnessing stories even more heartbreaking than Kazim’s and Leila’s.

In other words, the world needs more plays like Sweet Afton. They remind us that behind every headline is a human being.

LISTEN: Sweet Afton streams at through Sept. 5. Tickets are available on a sliding scale; free to $15.

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