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.)

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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.

So…

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.’

‘What?’

“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.’

Silence.

‘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.

Feeling free

Mohammed sent a recording of himself singing Bring Me Little Water, Sylvy. His voice sounded sweet, his phrasing African, his Sudanese accent strong. He’d sung it at our youth music class in Calais Jungle, France, asked for a link to a recording. I’d sent a youtube video of Moira Smiley with whom he’d performed it in Calais Jungle.

He rewarded me with a call. Soon we were video-chatting — he in the UK, me in California – about technology, his English classes, friends from the Jungle who’d been relocated to Accommodation Centers in France, and the kind man who was providing housing for Mohammed and another underage migrant. Despite videochat jerking the images of our faces, I could see the childish movement of his head, not altogether western, his tongue occasionally protruding, the sadness and joy coming into and leaving his eyes.

On my desktop, I cranked up the volume of Nina Simone on youtube. She was singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free. We chair-danced, arms waving in and out of our screens, laughing.

It was two am in the UK. I asked what he would do the following day. His mind wandered. I took that to mean, nothing. I suggested going to sleep, waking early, walking around his neighborhood to enjoy England, and if he happened upon strangers who weren’t rushing, practicing English.

I don’t know who he will become, this boy adapting to his new home. The terror of sneaking across the Chunnel on a truck is beginning to slip away from him. He will be pigeonholed by those who see him as an intruder. But it is too soon to define him. I want to see how he uses the language he’s learning. It will connect him with Englishmen in his new land, enable him to learn about them, to share about his native Sudan, to sing songs in Arabic for someone as he did for me and my team of Americans.

I hope people give him time to find his footing in this oh-so-new world, the country he targeted on a map. One day, he would slip in, under cold hard metal of a truck or in its refrigerated cabin. Each time he failed, police tear-gassed him, or he crashed on the pavement and got patched up in the Jungle’s first aid center.

Should we not reward his determination and openness to a new culture, this teen making a go of it in the absence of his family?

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free

As a Calais Jungle boy, seventeen-year-old Mohammed performed with Expressive Arts Refuge and with Omar, master of Sudanese song and refugee. One song Mohammed loved to sing was Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free. It was a joyful day, that concert with Moira Smiley on banjo, Mohammed proudly wearing a black dress shirt and red scarf we’d brought from California for youth performers, a day sandwiched between difficult days missing his family in Sudan, eyes sore from tear gas thrown by police to clear the road of migrants aiming for the Chunnel. He performed the Nina Simone song, clutching the mic like a parent.

Mohammed worried that he might never cross the Chunnel from France to the UK. He’d lost hope of getting clearance to migrate legally, and, like most refugees in Calais Jungle, tried nightly to board trucks.

I remember a day at the beach in Calais when Mohammed built sand huts, Sudanese style, and explained which of his family slept or cooked in which hut. That home compound back in Darfur seemed palatial compared to his shared tent in the Jungle.

When last week’s demolition of the Jungle approached, I advised him to apply for asylum in France, to queue with 7000 other Jungle migrants at a processing hangar in Calais, and to do what officials required because “France is full of good people, and you will find them.” That night, he sent a cryptic message that he was in London. How had he got there? Two yellow truck emojis.

The demolition of Calais Jungle proceeded. It was brutal on the 1000-1500 unaccompanied minors who lived in the tent city. Police, following orders to contain migrants queuing for relocation, kettled them, and turned youth, unregistered, back into a smoldering Jungle.

Suddenly, all the adult refugees were gone, bussed to Accommodation Centers around France. Sixteen hundred children were left to fend for themselves in unheated steel shipping containers, with faucets turned off, their former teachers and mentors blocked from entering the compound where youth slept twelve to a container – some in bunks, others on tables and floors. Food was short; showers failed to work; and the school, mosque, activities, and amenities – meager as they’d been – vanished. Children wandered or tore around on bikes amid bulldozers, gas canisters exploding in fires, and smoke.

Those whom French officials failed to register weren’t allowed into the now full containers, and slept rough in the damp chill, with no adults to protect them. Riot police and security guards surrounded the container compound.

Mohammed escaped just in time to miss the fires, the kettling, the orders to sit in the mud. He texted a picture of himself standing in an apartment pointing at a jack-o-lantern on a tidy table with a matching chair, something out of reach in the Jungle.

I texted back the lyrics to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free.

His reply: I will never aver forget this.

Today’s eviction from Calais Jungle

Through what lens do we watch the news?

Today, press focus on the razing of Calais Jungle, call it a necessary response to this blight on France. Thousands of refugees wait to be bussed to 138 Accommodation Centers throughout the country.

Europe’s largest refugee camp has become a symbol of Europe’s failure to care for its refugees. Walls and fences separate them from their dream, and create a different blight, a tall rigid sentinel over the port city of Calais.

In spite of long lines, cold, and the apprehension of too little information, no fights have broken out. The French supplied ample details to the press, but sketchy ones to residents of Calais Jungle. Run by UK volunteers, Refugee Info Bus stepped up to provide details in seven languages. Volunteers with Care for Calais and Refugee Community Kitchen gave out food and hot tea. Unaccompanied minors were turned away because plans are still not in place for their relocation. Traffickers lurk, and tonight, with no apparent protection in place, everyone fears they might pounce. This is not hyperbole. During a demolition of the southern half of the refugee camp in March, 2016, 129 minors went missing.

Four weeks ago, Linda Khoury recorded a podcast with me and Expressive Arts Refuge singer Tawfic Halaby. On the air, with the hindsight of several weeks stateside, we focused on the remarkable community created by volunteers and residents in Calais Jungle – their resilience and sanity. Until today, volunteers had offered free meals, phone-charging, first aid, wifi, non-stop classes for adults and unaccompanied minors, and a generous welcome to all who had become refugees.

Good news: Some of our friends from the Jungle were welcomed to their new town. A robust welcome. A video of the refugees smiling, their hands on their hearts. Thank you, France!

Now, protect the unaccompanied minors. Today. Before it is too late.