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.

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.)