Worst day in refugee camp

imageWhen you greet people every day, see them sing as they step into the outdoor shower, veer off through the yellow mustard field because the port-a-potties are disgusting, you see in this picture not a soldier with questionable practices, but a man drawing a flower. In the next picture, our Sudanese students are singing a traditional song full of longing for home and family. While the cacophony of singing together in different keys drives me around the bend, these teens execute tricky vocal ornaments in their own language well enough.

I know you want to see their faces, but due to asylum issues and families back home in conflict zones, I’m not free to show them.image

I am beating around the bush. It’s hard to admit how awful today was.

This week, two young refugees died here in Calais. Then the massacre in Nice happened. Smells, sexism, pickpockets, cross-cultural boundaries, distrust, and guns and knives cast a pall over the decency and openness that have dominated my time here. Crisis and chaos loom at every turn, little effective leadership seems to curtail bad behavior in the camp, there is no clean place to sit. Concert dates approach, and none of my youth students can find a starting note for any of the songs they will perform. Three boys arrived forty-five minutes late to music class and lied about where they were. People constantly disturb the focus needed for listening, and what is a music class without listening? I haven’t found a translator who demonstrates both concentration and musical curiosity. One got sick, another fails to show up, one came an hour late when I was packing up. Most answer my request to translate with ‘Inch Allah,’ which means they’ll come if they happen to remember.

And then there was the translator who started an argument that nearly broke into a fight. I brought it on. You could argue that the mayor of Calais sparked it by announcing the demolition of the camp ‘very soon.’ Since bulldozing the southern half of the encampment in March, an extreme shortage of space crowds over 7000 people into half the space. You could say that density caused it.

ItThe altercation happened in our adult music class. Afghans were wandering in and out, lounging and chatting in a room that serves as both classroom and lounge. The pitch and focus of the singers was abysmal. My ears were crying. I was coughing from dust and cigarette smoke. Irritation coursed through me.

I told the lounging Afghans that this was a singing class and, in order to learn songs, we were trying to focus and listen. Would they please join us or leave the room? I may have neglected to say please. My translator omitted most of the preamble and said with aggression, ‘Leave.’ One of the Afghan men leapt from a sofa and bounded toward the translator. He looked huge and red-faced. They were now standing rigid, three inches from each other, chests pumped up. Their shouts drew a French film crew and my singing students who softly pleaded, ‘My friend, it’s okay. Let’s go over there.’ I kept repeating to my translator, ‘Quiet voice.’ He doesn’t have a quiet voice.

Later, I learned that the Afghan didn’t like me because I taught Christian songs and touched my body. All the songs were secular and ‘touching my body’ is the asexual body percussion we use to teach rhythm.

After the argument subsided, I did my best to connect with the wranglers — refugees whose days are mostly bad days. I learned that the Afghan’s friend was one of the young people killed this week, hit by a leaping log placed on the highway to slow a truck, so he could jump on it to sneak through the chunnel to a better life in England. To make matters worse, police bullied him while showering, half-clad, at the water trough. He was not singing, not in the shower, not in class, not today, and not with the American lady who touches her body in public.




Author: earefuge

I direct EAR (Expressive Arts Refuge) whose work focuses on refugee youth in France and Greece. At home in Oakland, California, I direct World Harmony Chorus and World Harmony Ensemble.

3 thoughts on “Worst day in refugee camp”

  1. I am so sorry to hear about your painful day, Betsy, and also to hear that my daughter-in-law’s three Berkeley students were in Nice, two injured and the missing one, it was just reported– was killed. For every awful terrorist there are angels like you, giving, sharing, comforting. I hope your reinforcement team comes soon. I am so sorry to not be there with you. Thanks for sharing. We are back from France and wishing we were still there at the camp with you. Volunteering that first week was such a positive experience for my husband Andy and myself. Thank you, thank you. Judy Kranzler.


  2. So sorry to hear that Anna’s students were among the victims of the Nice attack.
    You brought so much to the camp. Missing your innovations and joyful strong way of interacting with everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is SO EXCITING! I sang Li Habibi and Oh mama to my father-in-law here is Florida for his 96th birthday because I was homesick for EAR! I am with you in spirit! I wish I could hear it! BRAVO for persevering. Hugs, Judy

      Liked by 1 person

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