March is Women’s History Month. In the past, I participated in Lowell Women’s Week in Lowell, Massachusetts. I offered a songwriting workshop and concert where I performed songs I had been working on from the oral histories of female factory workers.
This year, I am composing songs in Brussels, Belgium as a volunteer at one of the Fedasil refugee asylum centers. One of the staff members asked if I might offer a songwriting workshop for women at the center’s Women’s Week, and I jumped at the chance.
On Friday, March 10th, I took the now familiar route by tram, metro, and foot to the Petit-Château Klein-Kasteeltje. It is the only part of the Brussels where I have seen an actual flowing river (albeit one that flows with concrete borders). The château is a brick compound reminiscent of a small castle. I have spent most of my time in the first open area, singing and strumming away in a corridor that surrounds a rectangular space with a small play area for children and where I have seen soccer (futbol) nets set up on the rare occasions when the sun reminds us of its existence.
On this afternoon, I was led to a room in the farther depths of the castle. Along the way, the staff person reminded women we passed of the songwriting program. We arrived at an empty room, and I wondered if any women would come to such a seemingly hidden and out of the way location.
We set up cups for tea and waited. Minutes passed, and I wondered how long I should wait until giving up. Maybe, it would be better if no one showed up. Then, I wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of not being able to write a song. I could just go for a walk in the sun instead.
Three little boys came running into the room. These were a group of two brothers and a friend who had been terrorizing each other and other children around the compound. Most of their short lives had been in constant tumult, the staff person explained to me in English. The boys spoke Nederlands and French.
They have lived on the streets as well, she said.
I could do songwriting with the kids, I suggested, but the staff person thought it better to wait in case any other women showed up.
They certainly had high energy and wanted to drink the tea we had set out and use the paper as well. After a few minutes, a woman walked into the room, pushing a stroller ahead of her. She looked exhausted. This must be mom, I thought, and I recognized her as one of the women the staff person had explained the songwriting program to when I had first arrived.
She came and sat down. We offered her tea. The staff person went to get coloring supplies to keep the boys entertained, a brilliant idea.
I sat across the long table from mom. The staff person had been our language go-between when she first came in, as she spoke mostly Nederlands and I spoke English and French.
With the staff person supervising the boys, who were now thankfully engrossed in their coloring, I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with this woman. How could we write a song without a common language?
I gestured for her to come sit closer, and she did, bringing her tea with her. I asked if she spoke any French. A little. English? A little.
Well, might as well dive in, I though to my self, and I began asking her about her life.
Where was she from, and why had she left? Had she lived in other places since leaving her home country?
From our stilted dialogue of single words and phrases, I learned that she had been in constant flux for a long time. She had fallen in love with a man who was not the person her traditional Macedonian family wished for her to marry. He was older, and she explained that traditional meant that marriages were arranged. So, they had left Macedonia together and been moving ever since.
She had three boys, and she had experienced awful health problems. She had been seeking asylum in Holland, Belgium, and Germany but without any success as yet.
At least, you are able to be with the person you love, I suggested. She told me that after so many years of struggling, their relationship was broken, her family was broken, and she felt that she hadn’t been happy for 20 years.
I forgot about the sun as I listened to her recount a life of such hardship. I sat there wishing I could fix everything for her and feeling completely helpless.
Well, I could at least try to write a song for her, I thought.
I began reviewing the word and phrases that we had been writing on a large piece of paper. I had written a few words, and she would write as well. There was a mix of several languages spread across the page. I began writing a possible verse in English and asked if she would try to translate it into her native tongue. She began writing in Albanian. Went back and forth, interpreting the meaning of each line.
There were many possible verses but still no chorus, so I asked her what she hoped for in her life, her deepest desires.
This is what she told me:
I want a peaceful life for my children.
No more change.
No more stress.
No more moving around.
I want a peaceful life.
She wanted what most of us want: stability. My heart was so full as I sat looking at those words.
A few minutes later, two women walked in, one older and one with a little girl in pigtails in tow. I waved for them to come over and join us. The boys had begun to lose interest in coloring and were beginning to run around the room. The staff person joined us.
Neither spoke English, but we commenced with songwriting nonetheless.
I asked the woman from Macedonia if she would try singing, but she was very shy and wanted me to sing. So, I did. I wanted to give her this gift of music, and I felt like a wave of emotion and love that the melody just poured out of me, sad and hopeful.
I sang the first line and asked if she liked it. She nodded. I walked through the words one at a time with everyone and then added the melody to our repetition. After a few minutes, the older woman stood up, bowed to me in thanks, and left. I felt a small pang, but I also understood how it felt to not understand the words being spoken around me. Plus, I know firsthand that the prospect of singing can be scary and is not for everyone. The other woman was very invested, and it made me smile.
We sang through the first line several times, and I turned to the next lines. No more change, no more stress, no more moving around. I liked those lines, but I didn’t feel ready for them. I felt like there was something missing. I had the desire to sing the first line again but with a different ending.
I began to sing the words, I want a peaceful life, and I added the words for myself to finish the line.
Yes. It made so much sense to me. I explained my thought process to the women, patting my heart with my hand to express the idea of self.
It is important for us women to be at peace, I said. Our children cannot be at peace if we are not also. Additionally, it was women’s week and we should not forget ourselves.
The women shared knowing nods and laughter.
We sang, we laughed, we repeated words and melodies, and we sang some more.
By the end, the boys were running around screaming once more, but I felt like I had given their mom at least a few minutes of respite, someone to talk to, and the gift of music. She had given me a gift as well in trusting me to hear her story and in sharing her voice in song.