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.

Concert for Calais raises $1100

Concert for Calais in Berkeley, California raised $1095 for refugees at Calais Jungle refugee camp in northern France. Within a couple days, this sum will appear in gofundme. Donations will continue on that site as long as Expressive Arts Refuge runs programs for refugees. All donations buy things for refugees. EAR volunteers pay their own expresses (food, lodging, transportation, rental car).

The photo below is World Harmony Ensemble at Concert for Calais. It performed Fog Elna Khel from Iraq/Syria and other a cappella world music. The three in the bottom row right are Expressive Arts Refuge singers. Tawfic Halaby (flanked by Kym Mc Court and me, Betsy Blakeslee) is bringing two siblings who also speak Arabic. Verona Fonte’s digital painting from her series about the migrant crisis graces the top of the photo. World Harmony Chorus performed its beautiful diverse repertoire. It’s my privilege to direct both choruses and EAR. Photo by Ken Rice.


Concert for Calais, June 5, 2016 Berkeley

Bay Area music lovers: Come to Concert for Calais June 5th, 2016 4:00-5:15 pm.

World Harmony Chorus and World Harmony Ensemble will sing stunning a cappella songs from Iraq, Haiti, Quebec, Argentina, Bulgaria, and Galicia. Betsy Blakeslee will briefly describe Expressive Arts Refuge’s program in Calais Jungle refugee camp, France. Paintings about the migrant crisis by Verona Fonte will be on display.

Epworth Church, 1953 Hopkins St, Berkeley, CA

WHC Freight 15 copy

$10-20 free-will donation. 100% of funds will buy necessities for refugee youth and adults in the Calais refugee encampment. We’ll work with Refugee Youth Services, Hummingbird Art Center, and Refugee Info Bus in the camp to determine the most useful items to buy. We’ll hand-deliver them to mostly unaccompanied minors in July 2016.

Thanks for passing this along to people looking for a way to donate to recent refugees from Syria, the Middle East, and Africa.

Rhythm creates order and community

Refugee Youth Service has generously offered Expressive Arts Refuge space to run workshops in their school for 12- to 18-year-olds in Calais Jungle refugee camp, France. We’ll see what they are already offering youth refugees, then tailor our singing, body music and games to complement it.

Refugee youth in Calais Jungle come from Middle Eastern and African cultures, some rich, others poor in musical and rhythmic traditions. Rhythm bonds a group, brings pleasure to the ears and heart, organizes one’s neurological system, and makes chores musical.

Watch how this community integrates rhythm into daily life:

Hope to work with this Syrian musician

Unless a country has snatched this exquisite Syrian singer for their own, Expressive Arts Refuge hopes to collaborate with him at Calais Jungle. From July 1-Aug 3, we’ll teach singing, body music, and English to unaccompanied minors. They’ll perform in a concert with Expressive Arts Refuge singers, Moira Smiley, and adult refugee musicians on August 3.