PETALING JAYA: In 2016, playwright Saleh Sepas and his family were forced to flee Afghanistan after being threatened by the Taliban. Overcoming various challenges, they made their way to Kuala Lumpur and made it their home while he applied for permanent residence elsewhere.
Saleh subsequently applied to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for resettlement, as Malaysia does not recognise the rights of asylum seekers and refugees.
This month, Saleh finally received confirmation from the International Organisation of Migration that he and his family would formally be resettled in Vermont, in the United States.
While delighted by this news, Saleh was also sad to leave Malaysia, where he had lived for over seven years now.
“It’s amazing news for me and my family. In our new home, my children will be able to go to school. And I will be able to work like a normal human being,” the 41-year-old said in a Zoom interview with FMT Lifestyle shortly before the family left.
“But I also am of two feelings,” he added. “When I think about saying goodbye to my friends, I cannot control my crying. I will never forget all the times I had here.”
Saleh departed for the US on Wednesday with his wife Masooma and three children, Shamim, Shadan and Shahzad. Their two cats, Ava and Asa, are unable to fly until 30 days after receiving their rabies shots, and will be brought over to their new home later.
Art for the community
Many people here may know Saleh as the founder of Parastoo Theatre, which aims to empower refugees through the performing arts. “Parastoo” means “swallow bird” in Farsi.
“It is always migrating and moving and always travelling. This is the fate of migrants,” Saleh said of the group’s formation in 2017 and of its name.
He first turned to theatre to cope with isolation: upon arrival in Malaysia, Saleh struggled with depression from having to flee Kabul, and unhappiness from being unable to work owing to his refugee status.
“I realised I could not wait for others to help me change my situation. I had to do something for myself. So I created Parastoo as art therapy for myself,” he shared.
“But slowly, I started to bring more people in. Now, it is not just for me, it is for the refugee community, and for the Malaysian audience.”
Realising other refugees were likely going through similar mental health issues, Saleh started the theatre company to bring the community together, and to allow refugees to express themselves and heal.
Parastoo has since grown into a prominent production house, with shows such as 2022’s “And Then Came Spring” and 2017’s “The Bitter Taste of History” performing to packed houses and critical acclaim.
News of his resettlement, however, has come at a particularly bittersweet time – barely a week after the staging of “Red Soil of Kabul”, Parastoo’s biggest production so far.
Nevertheless, the theatre group will continue in his absence, with the torch now passed on to new director Farzana Yakta.
And, of course, there are plans to start a new branch of Parastoo Theatre in his new home: Saleh may even write a play about his experiences in Malaysia!
“You cannot separate art from your life and culture. It’s like cooking your food without oil or salt. Art brings people together, it promotes kindness and understanding,” Saleh said.
“I’m sure that after me, many people will still come to Parastoo. We have worked hard to where it is now, with many people wanting to see our shows and collaborate with us. I am glad for what we have made.”
He said he would miss his Malaysian friends, the country’s natural beauty, and foods such as nasi lemak and roti canai.
What is his favourite memory of being here? “When the Malaysian audience would come to my shows and, after watching them, tell me: ‘We believe in refugee talent’.”
Members of Parastoo Theatre wished him the best on his new journey.
“I hope you have a good flight and have the best life in the US. You were my father, my big brother,” said 14-year old Zakaria Seberi, an Afghan refugee who acted in “Red Soil of Kabul”.
“Please be a good director, take care of your family, and help make them famous over there. Please forgive me if I have said anything bad. Thank you so much.”
Activist and filmmaker Mahi Ramakrishnan told FMT Lifestyle she is glad Saleh and his family will have better opportunities in the US but is saddened by his leaving.
“Saleh told me about the resettlement right after the end of his play. I was devastated. We both hugged and cried. I call him ‘chotta bhai’, a term in Hindi that translates to ‘little brother’,” said Mahi, who has known Saleh for eight years.
“He used his work as a platform to engage with the larger Malaysian society. Saleh worked hard and used the theatre to nurture artistes, unearth their talents, and help them heal.
“I have had the privilege to watch him grow from a struggling artiste to what he is today. He believed that tomorrow would be better, and that Parastoo would flourish. And it did.”