Phase 2 at Calais Jungle

It’s rare that all one’s skills and pleasures converge. I am enjoying such a convergence.

For three days, I will direct a play by refugee actors who live in Calais Jungle refugee camp. They will perform for an audience of 450 at Caritas’ conference on migrants in Saint Malo, France on August 27, 2016. The proper directors, Bertrand Degremond and Gregory Barco, return Monday to retake their place at the helm.

Meanwhile, I use my background in psychology, performance, stage skills, and cross-cultural communication to shape a play that both informs and connects audience with actors.

The refugee actors created the play to tell their story – a treacherous boat ride from Egypt to Italy, abuse by Italian police, the long walk to France. It’s moving, rhythmic, visually compelling, and pulses with Sudanese and French music.

At rehearsals, I have the pleasure of sharing insights and authenticity with these new friends — men in their twenties and thirties from Sudan, Iran, and Afghanistan. We dance, sing, and do haka in rehearsal, sit knee to knee making music and talking softly in their tent and at the beach. I receive as many hugs as a person from a northern land can soak up.

Of course, cultural differences challenge all of us. We’re riding a beautiful, bumpy road, creating something together, experiencing power, art and the respectful sharing of ideas. And for me, convergence. image

Last days in Calais Jungle

Omer thrills the crowd

Moira Smiley, Sudanese singer Omer, Iraqi rapper Kasper, EAR singers, and refugee youth sang and stomped our hearts out at two concerts. Thanks to Calais Sessions, the wifi bus, and Hisham Aly at Caritas for organizing and recording the performances.

Moira Smiley captivated the crowd
Sudanese singer Omer with youth

We spent two final evenings in riveting singing, clapping, and drumming knee-to-knee with our Sudanese guys in their tent and at a School for the Arts in the camp. I have grown accustomed to the constant din of guys chatting and charging phones, and the School for the Arts is no exception. Omer leads Sudanese call-and-response with Zane on a funky out-of-tune piano, in front of a poster of the 1998 movie Jungle Boy and the smell of dead rats.

Men wait for lunch before we perform for them

What surprised us about the School was what happened in front of it at the end of our impromptu music gathering. The next day, we would leave our new friends in Calais Jungle. By the side of the road, they cried and heaved in our arms, and we, in theirs. How do they stay so open, to let in yet another set of volunteers who will head home to lives devoid of multicultural circle-singing in the music tent and kisses on the forehead and love that defies categories?

I miss a connecting flight, consider flying right back to Paris. But I book a room in an airport hotel to press on with responsibilities in the States, poke out my French sim card, and insert my US number. A text from one of the guys says that the School for the Arts burned to the ground.

I am feeling nostalgic for the guys, their school, even the smell of the rats.

Concert tomorrow!

We’re ramping up for tomorrow’s concert at the refugee camp in Calais, France. We’ll perform on the slanted ramp of a horse trailer converted into a wifi bus. Three short sets will feature Omer the outstanding Sudanese singer, Kasper the Iraqi rapper, Moira Smiley, and the American and Belgian EAR singers.


Omer (yellow scarf) needs no coaching. Every day, he uplifts the Sudanese community by leading traditional circle-singing. Yesterday, they sang and danced to celebrate the arrival of 100 migrants from the camp to the UK through some mysterious smuggling feat. What joy they express for their friends who will now have a better chance of work and safety!

Expressive Arts Refuge has shifted the focus of our daily music classes from learning and sharing songs to performing them.


Palestinian-American Tawfic (blue shirt) and Sudanese Bakree (middle) discuss how to share the role of MC. People from twenty countries live here. Many won’t understand the lyrics; the music will have to carry a message, a narrative, a feeling.

Sahlee never shows up for rehearsals. Just when we decide he’s opting out of guitar accompaniment for our youth singers, we find French volunteer Mathieu coaching him on I Wish I Knew How It would Feel to be Free. If Sahlee is not hunting down a door for his tent or a hammer to secure the door, his guitar practice should result in a solid performance. Two months agom he picked up a guitar for the first time. For weeks he’s said, ‘This is hard,’ to which we reply, ‘You can do it.’


We’re working with the generous musicians, producers and sound engineers at Calais Sessions, and the wifi bus for power and recording. Among the missing amenities in Calais Jungle is electricity.

How can we thank the people who make this concert and so much else in the camp possible? We start by thanking them here.


What we do here

I could say that what we do here in the camp is identify musicians who have become refugees and offer them a venue to perform. We also teach daily music classes to both youth and adults, focusing on songs in English, Arabic and Efik to improve their ear for language and their English vocabulary.

But EAR’s musical program goes deeper than that. We snap, clap and stamp rhythms to rebalance the nervous systems of traumatized youth and adults from conflict zones.

Making music leads them along the journey of a melody line, pulls them into the act of tracing a comforting gentle motion from note to note. The mind is lulled by the simple organization of a song. Learning new songs stimulates the brain, engages the attention, and realigns a jangled nervous system.

Other activities that mitigate the trauma and grief of refugees are those strong enough to overpower it – making art, watching films, taking drugs, swigging alcohol, and having sex. Art draws the attention in much the same way as music, engages the visual cortex, brings color and beauty to a page. The narrative of a movie can drown one’s own. But drugs and alcohol are forbidden for the many Muslims here, and films and sex are a rare option. These activities offer a distraction, but fail to build strength, new skills, and confidence – in a word, a life.

For our students her in Calais Jungle, sidling into musical challenges, shyly at first, then with growing skill, feels good, trains the attention, and produces pride that their efforts bring results.

What does body music do? Something magical happens at the moment of a sudden slap, clap or mouth pop. An exciting sound leaps from the body, electrifies the air. Musical experimenters fill a room with snappy patterns, using only their bodies, playing them like drums. Stomps and slaps on one’ own bones create more and more complex percussion. With complexity comes excitement and joy – sensations that elude people in deep grief.

Today, one of our students in the refugee camp referred to folks here as dead souls. Seeing death, smelling it, hearing its sounds lays claim to one’s soul.

So we sing. Eyes sparkle when someone succeeds in making their first mouth pop. We train our attention, trace the shape of a melody, blend in harmony, entrain to synchronize the start and end of a song. We do it with as much love as we can muster, both volunteers and people who have become refugees, just outside the purview of police who thwart their efforts to build lives, and the occasional disruptive refugee with a nervous system shaken by Taliban, ISIS, PTSD and histories I don’t understand.

That is what we do here.


Liquid gold, openness & strength

From the middle of a circle, Omer leads traditional and popular Sudanese singing, dancing, and clapping in a group of western volunteers and young men who walked hundreds of kilometers, endured beatings, and face uncertain futures. It is the most joyful gathering, a vortex among the tame Calaisians sunbathing or wading on the beach across the channel from the white cliffs of Dover, smaller than I remember them. They create intimacy by swaying close, here along the vast stretch of sand as in their tent.

My favorites among these young men spend last night in the EAR house. Omer said over breakfast, ‘A beautiful house is made more beautiful by good people.’ Then he sang in that voice of liquid gold, and the others streamed in, texturing the songs – Bakree with his wide open face (far left at the table), and Abdullah with his strength, equanimity, and foot broken by police (seated, indoors).

Tomorrow, my team arrives — Palestinian Americans, Caucasian Americans, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Belgian Palestinian. Singers all, they run IT departments, engineer for a Bay city, choral-direct, run a summer camp, bartend, dance, compose and perform, speak Arabic and French. It has been challenging to run a program during these two weeks between the first and second stints of the Expressive Arts Refuge team. I roped in a French singer/guitarist, an English Mom and daughter, a Medecins Sans Frontier psychologist, refugee translators, and Omer who taught Sudanese songs.

I’m excited for the EAR team to sing in Omer’s rocking music tent, knee-to-knee with Syrians, Iranians, Sudanese, Afghans, feeling their openness and strength, displacing whatever stereotypes they have of refugees.

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.