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.

Ethiopian Girls Sleeping Rough

She was fourteen when she left Ethiopia for Europe, a wee girl with hair pulled tight and piled high to make her look taller. We spot her in a group of nine girls, among eighty young men, all refugees in a mini-camp near the demolished Jungle in Calais, France. Hemmed in on three sides by green fencing with no place to sleep, cry or pee in private, watched by a CRS car, these refugees try. Just try, they say, and everyone knows they mean try all night to sneak into a truck across the Chunnel to England. This camp lacks the perks of the former Calais Jungle – schools, activities, refugee-run stalls and restaurants, hundreds of warm volunteers, and distribution sites for clothes, tents, and food. The biggest loss is tents and personal belongings. The CRS pepper-sprays nightly and destroys items that bring comfort, like tents and sleeping bags. SO this mini-Jungle is a rocky field of trash and people who harbor the suspicion of those who have been mistreated.

We give the men hot tea in plastic cups, and my heart instantly sinks with the realization that we have no food, shoes, or phone credit to offer. Their hope turns to disappointment. Still they chat with their few words of English, happy to shoot the breeze with Caritas staff who come daily to check on them.

I am new to this brutal mini-Jungle, the hair of the refugees big and wild because barbers in the previous Jungle of 10,000 have dispersed, clothes and faces dusty because there is no running water — that, too, vanished with the demolition of the Jungle.

Moroccan Maryam crams all nine girls into the Caritas van, with the offer of clothes and a shower. On the rise to Caritas, she chats and laughs with them in Arabic, calling them “habibi” (darling). At Caritas, the girls take hoodies and jeans, laugh in the shower, eat, beat out body music. It takes repeated reminders to get Maryam to translate my instructions, worded carefully to convey healing messages at multiple levels. But it doesn’t much matter if some is lost in translation because her love is so palpable, the girls melt. The wee girl and her sixteen year-old friend teach me how to shake my shoulders in an Ethiopian dance move that requires a fine isolation of muscles.

They soon tire because they didn’t sleep last night when they were trying, so we walk the pier, and buy them Tunisian dinner and ice cream at beach stands. They show us pictures of mothers and sisters on their phones. Hisham joins us, and after a brief conversation in Arabic with the slight fourteen year-old, passes along the sweetest thing I could imagine hearing: this is the first day since she left Ethiopia that she has let down her guard and enjoyed herself.


EAR arrives in France

IMG_0408Betsy Blakeslee, director of EAR, visits refugee friends from EAR’s 2016 program in Calais Jungle. France. These young men, determined to continue educations begun in Sudan, are applying to the University of Lille as the second group of refugee students from Calais Jungle. They wrote and acted in To Be or Not, a play detailing their journey from conflict zones to France, where they toured to national acclaim. Months later, they opt to leave the reenactment of their trauma behind in favor of education, work, and independence, including the apartment above.

We are so proud of their efforts to learn, adjust, and navigate an administrative labyrinth. When asylum papers arrive, they throw a party, dance and sing. But the challenges of living in a foreign country occupy them – visiting offices for papers, studying French, finding Halal restaurants, racism, worrying about family left behind in conflict zones, cultural clashes with French girlfriends.

Below, Olivier Vanderaa leads a writing workshop for students at University of Lille. Among them is Iranian Babak who is working on a writing project with Betsy.  A guest contributor for one session, Betsy introduced the worksop participants to VerbQ, a free writing tool that Nicole Janik and she developed to expand English vocabulary and boost the writing of bloggers, students, and writers. Babak visited the site five times in six days.

writing workshop Olivier Lille 2017

Two of these remarkable young men commented that a small gesture of kindness, a vote of confidence, or a visit from a volunteer while they were monitored under strict control staved off loneliness or bitterness.

So we press on.

From July 17-23, Betsy will co-lead an intercultural music program in Calais, sponsored by Caritas. The EAR team then meets in Athens to run its signature Expressive Arts program of singing, body music, and English at Skaramagas refugee camp.

None of the funds collected by EAR in 2017 have been disbursed. We’ll assess the needs of refugees in Calais and Greece, and work with organizations on the ground to put the money to best use. (See previous posts about what 2016 funds bought.)

A big thank you to our wonderful community of supporters and well-wishers. You are the wind beneath our wings.



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.)

Heading to Skaramagas Refugee Camp in Greece!

Expressive Arts Refuge is ramping up to run a music and English program this summer at Skaramagas Refugee Camp near Athens, Greece.

EAR is excited to partner with teachers at Skaramagas Refugee Camp’s Hope School to work with 350 refugee children who live at the camp. The teachers — chiefly young professionals who fled war in Syria —  educate children from Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Afghanistan. The residents of the camp walked hundreds, some thousands of miles, and paid smugglers to ride a flimsy inflatable boat to Greece. As they wait for Europeans and Americans to decide their fate, Expressive Arts Refuge is planning a program to support their education and ease the tedium of their days.

The 2017 EAR team includes: Master singer and arranger Moira Smiley will teach and perform songs, supported by EAR musicians. EAR director Betsy Blakeslee will lead singing and body music to rebalance the nervous systems of adults and children who fled war and conflict zones. Author and educator Judy Kranzler will train teachers at Hope School in cutting edge, culturally sensitive educational methods. Tami Halaby and Andy Wyrobek will assist Judy. Tawfic Halaby will translate conversations and classes into Arabic.

For translation into other languages, we’ll hire resident translators in the camp, leading to new friendships and an expanded team. We learn so much from people who are different from us. It is a truism that they give us as much as we give them.

We might make room for one more on our team — a bass or alto with IT savvy, performance and teaching experience, who can pay their own way, and of course, handle the grit, chaos and sadness of working in a refugee camp. Or an art therapist.


It’s time for packing, sim card queries, gathering supplies, tweaking repertoire, renting out my house in Orinda from June 23 – Aug 28, and buying bilingual dictionaries that we will use, then donate. In short, ramping up.




Looking back at Calais Jungle

When Tawfic draped EAR singer Kym in an Afghan scarf bought from a Calais Jungle entrepreneur, boundaries slipped away. Kym had let the Calais wind tousle her hair and Tawfic had untethered his Arab roots, hugging strangers and translating Arabic day after day in the refugee camp.

At the moment the green, red and black scarf rippled around Kym’s shoulders, Tawfic was about to deescalate a conflict.  It was July 31st, 2016, and Omer was finishing his set with Sudanese backup singers and youth from EAR’s music class for refugee youth.

A hundred fifty residents of Calais Jungle were clapping and smiling to Omer’s soulful melodies, straddling bicycles or sitting on mats we had lain over the gravel path, kicking aside a discarded sweater and shirt. Finding a place to sit outside the language school was a rarity.

As Tawfic remounted the converted horse trailer / wifi bus / stage at the close of Omer’s set, Kasper the Iraqi rapper was about to take the mic. Just then, an Afghan started banging on our rampstage, “No one likes us Afghans! Why do you not sing Afghan songs? In the lunch line, they serve Afghans smaller portions!”

I had studied conflict resolution, and worked in a Bosnian war zone, but could think of no intervention. Kasper took the mic, put his hand on his heart, and addressed the Afghan. “My brother,” he said. “We are all one family here in the Jungle. All of us.” The Afghan quieted, then pumped up his rant.

Tawfic slid down the inclined ramp of the horse trailer to face the Afghan. He extended his hand and smiled, “Salam alaykum.” Peace be upon you. Was he publicly shaming the man into civility, because in Muslim cultures, you must answer Salam alaykum with Alaykum salam. One hundred fifty people in the audience watched to see if this would escalate. If the Afghan stormed off, he could return with compatriots armed with knives and guns, repeating the brawl a few months earlier that landed eleven Sudanese in the hospital.

The Afghan hesitated. His eyes shifted around the audience. Finally he answered Tawfic, ‘Alaykum salam.’

Tawfic said, ‘We want you to share a song in Pashtun. And we’d very much appreciate you waiting until Kasper sings the songs he’s prepared.’

On our last night in Calais, we cried and embraced a dozen young men as we prepared to re-enter lives in the States that would no longer include kisses on the forehead;

knee-to-knee circle singing in Omer’s tent; laughter; love songs; and surrender to a particular kind of love that buoys us now that we are stateside. We hope it lifts the friends we left behind to start lives in France — some at university, others in accommodation centers. Some of our EAR team will visit them in France next summer, but they cannot visit us. For migrants, boundaries are more than metaphor.

Two Mamas

Abdullah phones. I call him Abdullah to protect his Mama back in Sudan.

He must be twirling his phone because the wall of his youth Accommodation Centre spins, the dark ceiling akimbo, the boy entirely out of view.

‘Abdullah, I can’t see you. Show me your handsome face.’

Is he hiding something – depression, a wound from a fight?

There is a precise moment when two people connect. Both or them feel it. This moment comes when Abdullah brings his face into the sightline of the phone’s camera.

“Ah, there you are!’

His face lights up, sweet and shy, with a hint of a mustache and the shadow of ordeals that have aged his eyes, brow, mouth.

He sighs, ‘Mama Betsy.’

‘I am your Mama in California, and you have your Mama in Sudan. Do you have a Mama in France too?

‘No. No Mama here.’

‘How is your family?’

‘I can’t find them.’


“Maybe they had to leave.’

‘Your Mama doesn’t answer her phone?’

‘No, Mama Betsy.”

I don’t know what to say. The camera catches his smile sliding off the manchild face, his foot gliding along the bare floor.

“Are you wearing only flipflops? Do you have warm shoes?’

If I accept the title, I can at least keep his feet warm in the bitter French winter.

He trains the camera on a pair of black lace-up shoes.’I have shoes. You see shoes here.’

‘Do you need anything?’

‘I need help with asylum for France.’

‘I’ll try to find someone.’

“Thank you.’


‘Listen,’ I say. ‘Wait a minute.’

I pull up youtube and play songs we sang together in Calais Jungle last summer. He sings off-key, seems to have forgotten many of the lyrics to songs he performed in Calais Jungle. He seems to be running his hand, fingers splayed, along the phone, like he’s touching the image of my face, or the music that bursts from his phone.

We talk, without understanding some of the content. I am sinking with the thought that he is worried whether his mother is safe. Maybe the soldiers from whom he fled came for his Mama.

Some days, I can’t fix anything. I sit in front of a screen, a thought circling – I should be able to mitigate the ordeal of this motherless boy who journeyed alone from Sudan to France.

He wraps up the conversation, ‘Thank you for calling me.’

‘But you called me!’

We laugh. He looks, once again, like the seventeen year-old boy I knew last summer. I touch the screen.