Khalim from Syria

Khalim and his classmates from Syria live in Bourj el Shemali. Khalim is one of the new wave of refugees to arrive in this seventy-year-old refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

He has good rhythm, this boy who learned mouth pops on his first try and never misses a chance to strafe them.


Like most of our music students, he alternates between focus and distraction. It is no wonder. His neighborhood has virtually no green space, and the narrow alleys that connect his apartment to the Cultural Center where we teach are shared by motorcyclists, curious children, mothers who smile at our hellos in Arabic, fathers walking to work, and trash. Lots of it. UNRWA provides garbage removal, spotty electricity, and running water which, like taps throughout Lebanon, doesn’t deliver potable water. Hence, thousands of plastic water bottles reflecting sunlight, then growing opaque with dirt.

The Lebanese government forbids residents from bringing building supplies into the camp. They don’t want it to grow. The country is poor and reluctant to invest in its Palestinian community.

Nonetheless, families do grow, and Syrians arrive.


As we walk through camp, we listen for wildlife. Apart from alley cats and a rooster, we hear none. In a Palestinian home in the camp, we enjoy hookah under a pair of caged birds. The sound is as close to one from nature as Khalim will hear. The son of our hosts helps African refugees in Italy, their daughter volunteers with BAS — our partner NGO.

People are shaped by context. So we are thrilled to watch Khalim take LEAP’s violin class, draw, and shake out tension when Ali, a BAS volunteer from the camp, beats out a rhythm. And sing with abandon a song about expressing oneself.

Day 5 at Bourj el Shemali, Lebanon

Each day, they appear in yellow T-shirts with blue doves of peace, mirror to our blue shirts with the same logo. They range in age from six to fifteen, in color from dark to fair, in musical ability from agile to plodding.  As their new music teachers smile at them, they watch –- curious, eager to learn songs, breaking into shy or broad smiles.

We stand in a circle – students, the Expressive Arts Refuge team, co-teachers and assistants from EAR’s partner organizations. It is the humid heat of summer in southern Lebanon, and there is virtually no AC in the building where we hold daily music classes. With exquisite timing, Sydney moves from focused learning to rhythm game and back. Tawfic leads warm-ups and translates, Tami provides her warm container for rowdy boys, coaxes them back into the learning circle. I teach songs, then stand back a little, assessing what is happening and how we can improve it.

All of a sudden, it is day four, and our students are singing three songs, with crisp rhythm and honed listening skills. The older ones, in middle school, read the Latin alphabet and puzzle out new English words in song lyrics on a white board.

Later, we return to our rented EAR house in Tyre, swim in the Mediterranean, and each member of the EAR team, seasoned in teaching music to refugee or disenfranchised youth, shares observations and suggestions for improving what we do. How to incorporate a deaf boy while preventing him from disrupting class? How to finesse class management? How to prepare youth for their performance on August 10?EAR’s partner organization LEAP (Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians) is in its tenth year of running English and arts programs at ten Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. This year, LEAP’s Project Music boasts 126 students spread across six daily music classes. EAR also partners with Beit Atfal Assamoud whose older teen and adult musicians live in the camp, and teach guitar and oud.


Project Music serves the youth of Bourj el Shemali, designated a refugee settlement by the UN in 1949. Now home to 23,000 Palestinians who are not afforded basic rights in Lebanon, it continues to be administered by UNRWA. All but the recent arrivals from Syria were born in the camp, to parents also born in the camp. As we walk through it, children emerge from cramped apartments to play in narrow alleys. It is a privilege to expand their play to include musical education with a great team and beautiful kids!

EAR Heads to Lebanon

Each summer, Expressive Arts Refuge partners with an organization embedded in a refugee camp. This year, LEAP (Learning for the Empowerment and Advancement of Palestinians) is teaching English and music to 150 children in two camps in southern Lebanon. LEAP’s language immersion program prepares youth for a proficiency exam that will enable them to attend a Lebanese high school.

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LEAP’s Project Music is teaching them Arabic songs. EAR will add songs in English and other languages. LEAP teaches percussion, recorder, violin and oud. EAR teaches vocal harmony, listening skills, and body music. Teachers from both LEAP and EAR teach in English and translate into Arabic, so the children learn English during music class.

Collaborations enrich a program. EAR partnered with Caritas and Refugee Youth Center in Calais Jungle, France. At Skaramagas camp in Athens, we worked with a refugee-led school. EAR and World Harmony Chorus share a director, Betsy Blakeslee. WHC, with Aswat ­­­–– San Francisco’s premiere Arabic Music Ensemble –– raised $21,000 in June to pay a year-round music teacher for the youth of the camps where LEAP and EAR conduct Project Music. EAR is excited to join LEAP at the end of this week, preparing the youth of Bourj el Shamali camp for a concert. Meanwhile, we share repertoire, and add to one another’s arrangements.

If you wish to donate, all funds go directly to support the music program – buying instruments, a speaker, accessories for instruments. EAR volunteers are all self-funding.

Benefit Concert for Summer Music Program in Lebanon Raises $19,000

On June 23rd, 2018, Notes From Home, a benefit concert in Oakland, California, raised $19,000 to support LEAP’s music program for Palestinian youth. In Lebanon.

Islamic cultural Center & audience_6.23.18

Frank et al singing.6.23.18

Aswat, World Harmony Chorus, and LEAP board member Frank Gelat put on a great event, including a joint performance of Lama Bada. The audience joined in on this ancient Arabic song, arranged by EAR director Betsy Blakeslee.

Verona Fonte’s digital art, from her series Escape From Fire, graced the show and raised $800. Thank you to the many organizations who participated, the many individuals who donated on gofundme, and our corporate sponsors.

Expressive Arts Refuge team is wrapping ouds in bubble wrap and packing violins to bring the refugee youth in a settlement in Lebanon. The EAR team will collaborate with LEAP musicians, teaching music and body music to middle school children. This year, many of our songs will feature English because the youth will sit for an English proficiency exam. Those who pass will be admitted to Lebanese high school, increasing their prospects of higher education and future work.

We Americans are learning debke, Palestinian dance, to enter their culture, and will teach Electric slide to give them a taste of ours.

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Samira & Betsy 6.23.18

EAR goes to Lebanon!

Each summer the Expressive Arts Refuge team takes its signature music program to a different group of refugees. In 2016, we led music and body music classes in Calais Jungle in the sand dune encampment of Calais, France. In 2017, we led 3-4 daily classes for children and youth at Skaramagas Camp on a concrete slab that once served as a port in Athens, Greece. In July-August, 2018, we’ll partner with LEAP to expand a music program begun in 2017 by our friend Frank Gelat from Aswat Ensemble. BAS, a non-political non-profit comprised of Palestinian leadership in ten of the twelve camps in Lebanon, will also partner with EAR through LEAP with whom they have a long-term collaboration.

We’ll work with Palestinian children and youth at Burj el Shamali settlement in southern Lebanon, using music to increase focus, listening skills, and social skills.

Each year, we provide adult refugee musicians with a platform to perform, teach children and youth, and get to know families. Most are Arabic, burdening EAR’s Tawfic Halaby with non-stop translation as well as teaching and performing. Tawfic carries out his multiple tasks with cheer and love, serving also as a cultural liaison for the California-based EAR team. After our program wraps up with a final concert, we continue to support those we leave behind via social media.

But this summer, we have an additional goal. We’ll have an opportunity to expand the skills of an ongoing music teacher to include the use of expressive arts to wake up understimulated kids and reduce their trauma.

What will we learn from those who’ve become refugees? We never know until a moment startles us into insight or warms us with expected generosity. An avid swimmer and sunbather, I also expect to learn how to swim clothed and to manage extreme heat with most of my skin covered.

Donations are always accepted through gofundme. EAR never uses donated funds for its expenses. Each volunteer is fully self-funded. We use donations for purchases that enhance our music program – musical equipment, musical instruments, the salary of an ongoing music teacher in a refugee camp, refreshments for refugee kids during their performance.


Winter, 2017

For refugees we met in 2016 and 2017, the most difficult season is winter. The basics of life take all one’s strength, volunteers slip away to regular lives back home, and finding one’s mettle is more difficult.

Last summer, Expressive Arts Refuge ran its music program at Skaramagas Refugee Camp in Athens. Many of its young people remain in the camp and go to school. Some avail themselves of extracurricular classes, like those offered by El Sistema in music. Along with most refugees in Europe, they shiver in clothes not up to the task of keeping them warm. Most live in shipping container with shrunken families, and hole up in them for both physical and emotional comfort.

Some of our friends from the unofficial encampment known as Calais Jungle studied French as though their life depended on it, which indeed it did.  A lucky few now study at university in Lille, France. Those whose PTSD, needs, concerns, and lack of formal education led them in a less disciplined direction, are finding small jobs, studying French outside university, cooking for friends. With the closure of EU borders and French accommodation centers, and asylum hard to come by, many are floundering.


Those who arrived in Calais after the demolition of the camp in October 2016 face police brutality and scant supplies. Intrepid volunteers with Refugee Community Kitchen manage police interference when delivering meals to keep them alive. Refugees have no option but to endure pepper spray and beatings, and confiscation of sleeping bags and Sim cards.

For Expressive Arts Refuge, winter is a time of separation from refugees we’ve come to love. We no longer see them as refugees, but as multidimensional people whom fate has not favored. We keep in touch on social media.


It remains a privilege to witness their warmth and resilience as well as their despair and anger. If fate removed our privileges — home, family, work, a future in a place of our choosing – I wonder how well we would pull together, graciously accept help, learn a new language, delve into our souls for refuge.


Since we don’t have to wrestle with that question, we are researching refugee camps in which to run our summer, 2018 music program. Lebanon is pulling out in front as a possibility.


Donate to Expressive Arts Refuge here. One hundred per cent of our donations go directly to help refugees. None are used to pay for the expenses of our all-volunteer team.

What is Expressive Arts?

We have posted portraits of our musical work with refugees in France and Greece. Today, we back up to explain expressive arts and how it serves as a refuge.

Expressive arts is the expression of a feeling or experience through art, music, movement, or words. The expression we refer to comes from inside oneself, and draws from a rich cultural tradition. Such expressions – tracking the shape of a melody, singing a tune or harmonizing in a group, beating out body percussion on one’s body, drawing on paper, writing one’s story — can become a refuge in hard times. They can also forge a path toward healing from loss or trauma. Story takes the form of an expressive art, and people who tell their story have a leg up in healing from the tough parts of life.

EAR members Moira Smiley and Betsy Blakeslee are pioneers who use a combination of song, entrainment and body music patterns with refugee children and adults. This mix balances their jangled nervous systems. Moira and Betsy draw on Balinese kecak dance, South African dance, and years of study with Keith Terry. To watch the simple body music patterns and songs they lead in refugee camps is to see confusion turn into loosely coordinated grace. One glimpses magic in the moment a roomful of refugee kids begins to entrain.

What we mean by entrain is a coming together in a simultaneous motion or musical blend where everyone steps on the same foot, slaps the same thigh, or sings in a coordinated rhythm. Entrainment also happens when a group feels its way into a kind of harmonious comfort. EAR’s Tami Halaby and Tawfic Halaby send out an exquisitely calm love – charging the atmosphere with a field refugee kids nestle into. This provides a special safety that magnetizes people into entrainment.

One example of using music and body music to entrain a group is Moira Smiley’s popular song and body music arrangement of Bring Me Little Water Sylvie. It’s so compelling that youtube hits number in the thousands, and covers in the hundreds. People sense the joy and intimacy of beating out and singing Lead Belly’s Bring Me Little Water Sylvie in a group, and want to be a part of it. When EAR teaches this song in camps, we simplify the body music to bring the satisfaction of success.

Moira-Smiley.jpgMoira Smiley, whose release Refugee was inspired by her work in refugee camps with EAR

Expressive Arts Refuge is a team of mostly American singers who form a circle with people who live in refugee camps, with little more than airwaves as support. Little by little, refugees enjoy the stimulation of learning and sharing music and body music, feel good as their bodies move together in rhythm, express themselves musically, feel the satisfaction of learning, and relax into a respite from all kinds of ordeals. And we westerners learn from them, receive their broad generosity and trust, and enjoy entraining with their ways of being.

All of us are surprised by how quickly a sense of family, acceptance, and love emerge in the tiny space of a shipping container or a tent. Those spaces become safe because all of us co-create the safety that comes from taking refuge in expressive arts, and because human beings glom onto the tribal feeling that entraining provides.