A most curious relationship

image.jpegThis is a cell phone that nearly sank in the pocket of my new Sudanese friend and translator when his boat capsized in the Mediterranean. He will try to repair it. He won’t find the missing part in the refugee camp, and even if he did, he wouldn’t purchase electronics here for fear that they’re stolen.

It is easy between us, this lovely man in his mid-twenties, two years into his computer science degree when a death threat sent him fleeing across the desert, into the car of a smuggler, sinking in the angry waters of the Mediterranean.

It is not easy with the Afghani man who almost punched my translator during music class last week. I remind you that he hated me because I taught Christian songs (which I don’t), and while not voicing this sentiment, because of what my country did to his.

After the argument in class, I initiated a conciliatory talk with the Afghan. But his distrust, even disdain, remained palpable.

The next day, he hung around the perimeter of music class. We held it outdoors in a packed gravel-floored teaching space shared by eight volunteer language instructors – French, English, and German, their students, and the generator whirling a constant, ugly noise. I was teaching a body music pattern to the song Bring me Little Water, Sylvie. It has an arm gesture that resembles giving. Each time the pattern cycled to the arm gesture, I sent the feeling of openness and giving directly to the Afghan.

At first, he was confused. Then his face softened, and he uncrossed his arms. Finally, he smiled. I don’t know whether he was smiling in the direction of the music class or at me.

We repeat this each day – his hanging back twenty feet from the music class, my arms sending him a personal message, his smile.

It’s a start.

My friend will catch a ride in my rental car to a phone store tomorrow in search of the waterlogged and bruised piece of his iphone. To thank him for translating in our music class, I’ll buy it. Here in the Jungle, every action feels like a start, a fix, a restart, a replacement, a stand-in, a new language, a new custom, a new relationship, an unfamiliar risk, a new comfort, and a new friend can embody any number of these.

Police and art

Following the massacre in Nice, the refugees of Calais Jungle wanted to express their condolences to the people of France.

A couple of French volunteers and I convened a deep conversation that resulted in a heartfelt message translated into both French and English. We asked the French police who guard the entrance to the camp for permission to paint the message as an art project on the underpass wall that motorists see as they enter the motorway. The wall is full of graffiti conveying the dreams and frustrations of the refugees.


Would they agree to let us cover over the crass graffiti with condolences to the people of Nice?


Was there any way for the refugees to write a message of condolence that they, the police, would approve?

A sheet.

A bedsheet?


We bought one sheet and English and another for French, and stretched them over the roof of a car. Thirty refugees drew careful letters, discussing grammar in French and English. All weekend, they wrote and drew. New refuges pitched in. By the time they finished, 100 had gathered around the sheet-draped car, asking for translations into Pashtun, Arabic, Tigrinya, Oromo.

Police watched us write the message all weekend. When completed, they forbid us from affixing it anywhere visible to motorists. They also forbid us from covering or painting over offensive graffiti. We could lay it on the ground at the entrance to the camp, out of the view of drivers.


I may be wrong in what I’m about to assert. I hope I am.

By allowing only refugees and volunteers who enter the jungle to read the message, and denying French motorists the chance to see it, police are encouraging the French to think all refugees and volunteers agree with the existing graffiti, ‘Fuck France.’

Back in singing class, the youth at Hummingbird Art Center hosted new singers sporting masks they’d made. To learn mouth pops, all but one removed their masks. The boy who kept his mask in place doesn’t talk. I don’t know why. His body percussion was quick and precise. He helped others for whom the body music came more slowly. His mouth pop on the mask sounded perfect.

Express as you can. You never know when it will be out of reach.


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.




Day 12 in Calais Jungle

This place grows on you – the friendliness of the refugees, their hardiness, the smiles that erupt when you say hello, bon jour, salaam. Volunteers work long hours without familiar comforts. All day, refugees and migrants ask for help: Can I find a saw for a 16-yr-old who’s fortifying his tent with a tree limb? Can I help the extremely thin Sudanese guy, Sahlee, learn guitar? Soon there are seven young men strumming the chords to Jimmy, won’t you please come home.

For a couple days, I’ve looked for the Sudanese singer and translator I’d hoped would teach with me. They didn’t pick up the bike I found for them. They didn’t come to music class.

Today’s youth class nearly finished me off. Doctors Without Borders was drilling and pounding in a new fence to protect the Youth Safe Zone. Boys popped in and left when they heard that the distribution center was handing out jackets. Two were hungry and the prospect of a hot meal trumped. One left to get his friends, leaving me to teach a private lesson to a boy who can’t carry a tune. He loves English so the lesson morphs into an English class. He traces on a map his journey from Eritrea to Calais, France. Then the boy who promised to return with friends hops over the threshold into Hummingbird Art Center’s shack, full of excitement, with three friends, and the singing and body music come to life.

It’s not long before two Afghan teens run around disrupting the class. I throw them out. Someone fetches one of the singing boys who then leaves. I have no idea why; someone is always searching for someone else. Finally, as I’m packing up, a boy arrives. The twenty flyers we posted around camp apparently failed to hammer home the start time. There is no central bulletin board, and French police are not letting in building supplies with which we might erect one.

An hour later, Gaetane, a talented French singer, co-teaches the adult music class. It’s lively and productive. I see the nervous systems of participants rebalance with body percussion.

This is why I’ve come.

Music in Calais Jungle

Every morning, this gull visits our kitchen window overlooking Calais port. We pour drinkable yogurt over bio muesli, then drive ten minutes to Calais Jungle. I’m enjoying teaching with the first part of the EAR team. Judy, an educator and former summer camp director, cut bamboo into rhythm sticks and leads games with them – a favorite in our youth music class.


As the refugee children of the Jungle wait outside their makeshift school to transform into angels, the tension in their faces softens. Below are their caravans in the family section of the camp. The older girl watches Harry Potter movies, so I ask the part of my team who arrive in a couple weeks to bring JK Rowling books.


Near the child angels, a small circle of Sudanese refugees sits on wobbly chairs and sings traditional songs. One of them had described fierce winds between Egypt and Italy that toppled his boat of 700 smuggled refugees. Five hundred fifty drowned. The water was so thick with bodies that he couldn’t swim. Drowning passengers had tugged on his legs to pull themselves to the surface. A Russian boat picked up 150 survivors and delivered them to shore where they were beaten by Italian police. ‘It happened on June 3rd, a month ago,’ he’d said. I’d asked him to find a singer to teach music with me. He’d said, ‘There is one guy who was ‘sinking in the water with me.’ Now, we’re sitting in the singing circle on the wobbly chairs and a riveting voice purls over us. Songs he wrote flow forth, songs that stir the group of young men to sing and clap, songs from under the sea. His face is open and beautiful, pained and vulnerable, this mid-twenties man by the name of Omer, wearing a worn T-shirt, whose molten voice the world almost lost.

His career as a music teacher in Europe begins Monday.

Teaching music to refugees

They are from Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Pakistan. They walked, then when their boat’s engine failed, floated on the current. When they were at risk of sinking in an overloaded boat, smugglers ferrying them across the Mediterranean threw their water bottles and daypacks overboard.

They crossed several European borders before fences to thwart them sprang up. They made it to Calais Jungle, in the north of France, hoping for a life in France or England.

In the tent city of Calais Jungle, they attend our music class to sing and beat out rhythms on their bodies. They learn mouth pops and English. The attention span of the youth lasts thirty to ninety seconds, a few minutes more for the Sudanese boys.

We, Expressive Arts Refuge, are adapting to squalor, constant noise, basic levels of musicality, and rats the size of cats. We’ve taught a song from Nigeria and one from Cuba. We add body music and adapt lyrics to make them relevant, with input from refugees:
I love the mountains
I love the rolling hills
I love the flowers
I love England still
I love my family
I love community
Bm di odda bm di odda bm di odda bm

Songs are beginning to travel in the camp. We heard one young Afghan singing a song we taught, several hours after class, utterly out of tune.

I’ll look for a male assistant/translator among the refugees. Families are sequestered in a family camp, so we see mostly unaccompanied minors (about 1000 boys) and men in their twenties and thirties (roughly 6000). The faces of the boys have toughened. They cannot let down their guard. While singing, drawing, or playing with other children, their boyishness slips out.

They are floating on fate.

Arriving in Calais Jungle

Today we learned how to say thank you in Pashtun, Arabic and Tigrini. How the eyes of these men shimmered when we…

Today we learned how to say hello in Pashtun, Arabic and Tigrini. How the eyes of these young men shimmer when they hear us speak their langauge.

At the entrance to Calais Jungle, Banksy’s mural of Steve Jobs graces a concrete wall of graffiti. Here, Expressive Arts Refuge director Betsy Blakeslee and EAR member / summer camp director Judy Kranzler pose with Syrian Steve Jobs. Graffiti abounds here, as anywhere young people lack structured creative activities.

Calais Jungle is an impromptu town, shantytown, tent city. It functions with few formal services. A couple dozen French and English charities run it with the help of refugees and hundreds of volunteers. Each day, about 200 mostly western volunteers teach children, offer non-stop language classes to adults, cook and serve meals, run distribution points first aid stations, legal and arts programs.

On our first day, we jumped in too quickly. We walked into a youth center, and with the reticent blessing of its director, started teaching a song. But the teenage boys didn’t want to sing. Some wanted to tell the story of soldiers threatening their parents’ lives if they, the sons, didn’t join the Taliban. They wanted to tell us which countries they walked through, how long they’d been waiting to reunite with family in the UK. So we abandoned our agenda, and listened. It’s Ramadan, when devout Muslims won’t sing anyway.

A young Sudanese man came to our adult singing class today. He made his way 1300 miles to Calais, France where he sang in our class with Eritreans and a Pakistani. His openness and trust impress me. His English is excellent. He could earn money translating.