Stand in That River

EAR Director Betsy Blakeslee’s talk at Benefit Concert for refugees 5.20.17

When Expressive Arts Refuge headed to Calais Jungle refugee camp in France last summer, we didn’t know what to expect. We’d researched the camp, reached out to organizations on the ground, prepared music classes, xeroxed songsheets, and packed supplies.

Then we arrived and found, dust, smells, rats, refugees crammed into tents closer than the minimal distance allowed by the UN, and no common space other than refugee-run restaurant in shacks and a few crammed classrooms. We adjusted.

Something ineffable happens when you leave behind the comfort of your own culture and step into another. We showed up, taught music, worked with partners, and followed refugees into their tents where we sat, knee-to-knee, making music, dancing, and drinking tea. In just a few days, we became the sisters, brothers, and mothers they’d left behind. and we saw them not as possible Islamic terrorists, but pillars of strength — generous, flexible, loving. Making music in a group bonded, calmed, improved their ability to focus, and brought joy.

When the Jungle was demolished, its refugees were scattered to accommodation centers throughout France. A few attend university in Lille, some sneaked into England on the back of a truck. Most languish, waiting for asylum or deportation. We keep in touch on facebook, offering sympathy when they despair, clicking like when they post original rap lyrics, or a photo of loved ones back home or new European friends.

With the Jungle gone, we looked for a new refugee camp to run our expressive arts program this summer. We found Skaramagas in Greece. It houses 3500 Syrians, Iraqis, Kurds and Afghans on a slab of concrete in a port just west of Athens. In July and August, a slightly different Expressive Arts Refuge team will teach daily classes in English and music in Skaramagas camp. We’ll work with Hope School, a refugee-led initiative that educates 350 children. Judy Kranzler, author and educator, will train Hope School’s teachers in her cutting edge, culturally sensitive approach to teaching English and reading. Moira Smiley – master singer, arranger and workshop leader – will run music classes for youth and adults. I’ll teach body music to rebalance the jangled nervous systems of traumatized refugees. Tawfic Halaby will translate between Arabic and English, and explain cultural differences that baffle us.

We’ll put on a concert. The kids will wear hand-dyed scarves like those worn by World Harmony Chorus who are singing for you today. Scarves may not seem important until I describe what one of our seventeen year-old boys in Calais Jungle did with his scarf. After he performed in it twice, he kept it hidden in his shirt pocket, over his heart, all day, every day. He slept with it. It may have been his first gift beyond food and necessities provided by volunteers since he left Sudan — traveling alone across the Sahara, with smugglers, robbed in Libya, by smugglers, across the Mediterranean to France, in the hands of yet more smugglers.

At Skaramagas, we’ll walk along rows of shipping containers – small, hot and boxy — that serve as homes, classrooms, a safe space for women to talk. Most of the time, we’ll stand because there are few chairs in the refugee camps that the Greek military fences in and guards, where the dearth of beauty, stimulation, points of interest and comfort make life gritty. We’ll provide these in the sheen of our earrings, the eager brightness of our voices, our openness as people we meet warm to us and recount how their flimsy boat filled with water, and they held their breath, hip to hip with 200 people in a boat built for 50, how it rocked in the troubled water of the Aegean Sea, and some fell overboard and drowned. But turning back meant reentering a war zone, the neighborhood turned to rubble, scarce food and water, shuttered schools, scant aid, and death threats when they refused conscription into the Taliban or ISIS. So they placed a hand on each other’s back, and went forward.

In the camp, we’ll stand because planting our feet on the ground, even on concrete, lifts all of us out of a sticky poignancy. We’ll sing and beat out body percussion and practice words in new languages, and the children will teach us songs from their homeland, and learn songs from us in Greek, Efik and English. Soon we’ll be greeting each other in Arabic, Pashtun and Sorani, and someone with a beautiful brown face — darker than tan from the shadeless hot air by the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea — will tell their story in a timid or urgent voice, fearful that we’ll doubt their account of what Europe is like for undocumented brown people at night, after aid workers and volunteers leave the camp to relax in rented houses. We know from Calais that police see us as tourists with the power of social media. In Calais Jungle, when we saw police mistreating refugees, we pulled out iphones and started filming. The police walked away.

So we’ll stand beside these people stuck in Greece because borders with Balkan countries to the north have been walled off. We’ll try to understand their lives, as they try to understand us. We’re pretty sure they’ll respond to our presence, and songs, and our hearts as we open to these lovely, strong, determined, hurting souls who wait with waning hope to build a life in the promised land, much like our ancestors who, within a couple generations, add their piece to a country they come to love.

(Moira Smiley’s group singing her original song Stand in That River below. EAR performs it with her in the camps.)

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.

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