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.

September Visit to Skaramagas!

Judy back 3 boys dad skaramagas 9.17.jpg


judy milad salman mustafa kids.JPGAt Skaramagas Refugee Camp near Athens, Judy and Andy visited our Syrian and Kurdish students, met their families, and gave hugs all around. The children burst into the songs they’d learned from EAR, and shouted, “Music class? English!?” Judy and Andy floated from one welcoming shipping container to another, each white and crammed with kids, musicians and mentees hungry for a taste of their American friends. Musicians Hussam, Milad, Salman and Mustafa pulled out their instruments and sang Lamma Bada, drowning the kids’ small voices.

Every story from someone who lives in a refugee camp is heart-wrenching, but one from Skaramagas stands out. Elias, a ten-year-old boy, tore around during our daily music classes, disturbing the learning atmosphere, picking fights, tumbling over and under his companion Ayham. Judy ran him four times around Hope School compound to drain his excess energy. Back in class, his eyes darted around, his arms flung about in arrhythmic moves, he’d catch a snippet of a song, shout or murmur it, then climb up the window, succumb to an adult hug aimed to contain him, and then Judy, Tawfic or Tami ran him around the compound again.

The biggest surprise when Judy and Andy visited our kids at Skaramagas last week was that a deep calm had settled over Elias. His long-absent father had arrived! His Papa had spent two years in Germany, where he’d been flown for multiple surgeries following a bomb that demolished his home, and killed his father, brother and uncle.

While healing and learning German, he’d filled out papers to bring his wife and sons from Syria. Unsuccessful, his pregnant wife had fled from Aleppo to Turkey. But on the Aegean, she’d had to crouch to shield her two sons with her body as pirates or Turkish soldiers had shot at their boat. She didn’t turn around to identify them.

Finally, a ship from the Greek Coast Guard drove off the gunmen and guided the refugees to Greece. After time in a holding camp on Lesbos, they moved to Skaramagas where she birthed her third son, and the family waited to join Papa In Germany.

Now, Judy and Andy sat in their shipping container, cool from AC, where Elias and his brothers nestled into their father. Elias, the trouble-maker, was calm, steady-eyed, and able to listen.

One can’t be entirely happy in a camp because something poignant lurks. Elias’ Papa was allowed to visit for only two weeks, and Hope School stopped providing classes when its administrator received asylum in Sweden. The replacement administrator wasn’t yet running classes, and when he does, fatherless Elias will likely climb up the window again, and the EAR team who ran him around the compound to improve his focus is gone.

For two months each summer, we do what we can with music and body music and regular classes and love. Musicians who’d put aside their instruments pick them up and make music with us in rich exchanges, and perform. Young people who’d stopped dreaming picture a bigger life outside a camp. Refugee youth set up group messaging systems where their isolation wanes, and encouragement comes in colorful emojis.

Judy sea Skaramagas.jpgWe will visit them again. This summer, Betsy travelled to four French cities where she visited twenty refugees from EAR’s 2016 project in Calais, France. Each year, some of the EAR team follows through with some of the many wonderful, strong people we are privileged to know, who share their lives with us at a pivotal moment, the nadir of their lives, when kind strangers from the wider world come to see them in their misery and make a small difference.

Thanks for your support! All donations directly serve the needs of refugees in Europe – sleeping bags, shoes, food, and phone credit for refugees to call their families. None is used by the EAR team. They pay their own expenses.

Finishing 2 Weeks in Greece

skaramagas concertA big thank you to the EAR team of 5 Americans, and refugee musicians Hussam, Milad, Salman, and Mustafa for bringing music, love and so much more to the children of Skaramagas refugee camp, Greece. Everyone brought something different to the EAR program and all gave generously of themselves.

ear team 2017 skaramagas.jpgAs racism lashes out at home, all of us seek ways to use our skills to increase the humanity with which we treat each other. Here in Greece, children waiting for acceptance into a host country, received hugs; expressed themselves through haka, song, and body music; and performed for their families and others in the Skaramagas camp.

A glaring irony in the camp struck me: The concrete on which the life of the camp pulses and drags seems to stretch out with permanence. But the situation of refugees living here is impermanent. Camps close. People are moved. On EAR’s last day in the camp, I wanted to leave something meaningful with Kurdish singer Salman. I saw this bush.

salman by bush skaramagas.jpgIt had thrust itself through the concrete, and despite temperatures of 100 and a summer with no rain, it was thriving. We talked about the positive intention, passion even, of that bush living in those conditions. Then we parted. It is like that, these intimate exchanges with those whose lives hang. We westerners move on with freedoms that support careers and whims and relationships. They remain on a slab of concrete, taming pigeons.pigeons flying over skaramagas.jpgSo we do what we can to humanize conditions. Thank you for what you do, wherever you are. There is much brilliance and innovation, and precedence, too. We celebrate small gestures and structural changes bursting through the concrete.tami's lve note to skaramagas kids.jpgDonate here

Expressive arts in Skaramagas

IMG_0703.JPGMoira Smiley demonstrates a variety of sounds – each using a different emotion and vocal quality. Kurdish, Syrian, and Iraqi refugee children at Skaramagas Refugee Camp copy her. One by one, they adjust blurts of sound to match her pitch and dynamics. It is a vocal warm-up, but it is more than that. They learn that singing can provide a vehicle to express emotion, to communicate, to sense the energy in a room and join it.

Each day, in one of Expressive Arts Refuge’s three daily music classes, children absorb a diverse repertoire, rhythm, and English. Our EAR team provides a calm, centered class where children sing songs from several cultures, including their own. Some are spirited with body percussion and mouth pops, others are laments in Arabic.

Tami Halaby melts the scattered ones with her gentle touch. Tawfic Halaby translates to and from Arabic and, in his near-constant expression of delight, sends out an acceptance that makes everyone relax. Judy Kranzler runs the kids who can’t focus on a patch of astroturf – the closest thing to a green space in the concrete camp of 1500-2500 refugees. Despite temperatures hovering around 100 F, this practice has stopped fistfights in class. Judy also teaches a physical and musical English class to children who line up with eager faces to enter our air-conditioned shipping container, generously provided by Hope School.

There is a stark whiteness to Skaramagas Refugee Camp, dominated by the isobox shipping containers, but there is also the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, into which the older boys dive while we eat a lunch of falafel. The cranes belong to the port of Skaramagas.IMG_0714.JPG

Tonight, we’ll share a meal and make music with Syrian musicians who live in the camp. One, an oud player, has been waiting with his wife in Greece since 2015 to rejoin their fourteen year-old son in Germany. One gets used to stories like this, in refugee camps, but we shouldn’t.

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First Day at Skaramagas Refugee Camp, Athens

Five days after a seven year-old Syrian boy was found in the Saronic Gulf of the Mediterranean Sea bordering Skaramagas Refugee Camp, Ear arrived at the camp. The boy lived with his family. Surrounded by a fence, with passages sliced into the wire for open access, the camp sits on a slab of concrete, lined with rows of white shipping containers, next to the Skaramagas shipping docks.

Everything that happens during the sweltering summer in the refugee camp takes place in one of these small cubic containers. They serve as tiny houses for refugees, NGO offices, and classrooms.

Judy K teachng skaramagas 7.25.17.jpg We arrive just as some of the staff in NGOs that serve refugee children leave for vacation. It takes a couple of days to secure a container for EAR’s Judy Kranzler to train English teachers at Hope School and the NGOs that offer English classes. Judy lugged a projector, DVD player, and phonics books from California – supplies that will remain after a month of teaching her acclaimed kinesthetic and music-based methods.

In music class, Betsy leads a Maori haka exercise that is at once physical and musical. The trauma of living in conflict zones, and the closure of many schools in Afghanistan and Syrian due to deadly attacks, has left the boys unable to focus. The girls, more disciplined, show a love of singing. We are told that it is a good class because only one fight breaks out.

Little by little, we get to know our way around the camp, including the norms and mores of its Syrians, Afghans and Kurds. We learn about the role of honor in multi-generational settings, and adjust a plan for parents and children to pair up in class.

I have never seen a refugee camp – not in Bosnia, Croatia, France, and now, Greece – where logistics are easy. EAR member Tawfic Halaby will translate for the Arabic-Speaking Syrians and Kurds. We hire a handsome twenty year-old Afghan to fetch the children for class and to translate. He tells us that he is the only Afghan to mix with other nationalities. We are hoping that he will bring Afghan children to our English and music classes. One of the pleasures of this first day in Skaramagas Refugee Camp was meeting an eleven year-old Syrian boy who trailed us, translating. As is the custom in Middle Eastern hospitality, he brought us to visit his family in their caravan. They talked of waiting for papers to join the boy’s father in Germany.

At the end of the day, we see a dozen young men and teenage boys swimming in the shimmering port water at the edge of camp. This would be the likely spot where the seven year old slipped off a steep drop-off from the concrete into the sea, and drowned. Due to the searing heat, Middle Eastern seclusion of women, and fear, most of the 3600 refugees – families and unaccompanied minors – spend the day in their cramped caravans. The boy, gone missing between bedtime and 1:30 am, must have wanted to taste some kind of freedom he sensed was missing.