Something I love about songwriting is that each experience brings a new song into the world that didn’t exist before. During the summer, I do not generally go to the refugee center. My volunteer partner returns to her homeland of Scotland for a long visit, and it is a time to rejuvenate and refill my energy stores.


However, a friend sent me a message the other day, asking if her son could join me for a songwriting session for a project he was working on for school. I figured it could be fun to visit the center and sent a message to a friend who I met at the center over a year ago (and who has since been granted asylum in Brussels) to see if he might like to join us.


I proposed that we meet mid-morning since the temperatures have been climbing to uncomfortable heights by the afternoon these past few weeks. The three of us met at the entrance to the center and all went in.


We walked to the usual spot and sat down on the usual bench where we set up our temporary poetry and songwriting session. My friend and I shared a little about ourselves and then I talked about the work I have done with my co-volunteer at the center. My friend’s son told us about his project, and then we got started.


He had brought paper in the form of enormous post-it notes, which was fantastic for posting on the big, wooden doors. We gave up trying to hang paper on the brick walls because no amount of tape could make them stay up, especially on a windy day.


It was pretty quiet at the center, so we stood and chatted while we waited to see who might join us. While we were talking, my friend Mohammed shared a little bit about his experience in Gaza with my friend’s son. As often happens, I could already hear the beginnings of a song from his words.


With his permission, I wrote them down.


When I left Gaza and I came here

Something changed in me


What changed? I asked him.


A lot of things

The first thing to change

I think everything changed in myself except my feeling about the people


Which people? I asked. I listened, wrote his words, and asked questions to try to draw more detail from his story.


All the people.

I believe we are all human, we are the same.

And I like to help the people who need help.

I do that because I believe lives are like a circle.

If I help the people today, when I need help I will find someone.


And for me if someone did something bad to me, I cannot hate him.


Can you share an example? I asked.


He went to talk about a person in Gaza who believed deeply in the Quran and who threatened to take Mohammed’s life because he was an atheist.


Every single time I visit the center, I am both humbled and awed by the experiences people share from their lives before coming to Brussels. It is also a reminder to feel gratitude for my own life and an opportunity to put my own life woes into perspective.


Like so many of the individuals I have met at the center over the past year and a half, Mohammed shared words of hope, love, and forgiveness. He expressed his desire for change in Gaza.


I don’t hate the people, I hate the way they live

I wish they could be better, I wish they could have a better life

To be free


Because if you are free you can live better. When you are cuffed, it’s like you are locked, your mind

And you don’t want to open it


How do you think people could change and become free? I prompted.


It’s not about religion. It’s the way they are, it’s how they live

We have to do something like celebrate our divide, our difference


After filling several sheets of paper, I took a marker and wrote CHORUS at the top of a fresh page.


Below, I wrote the following two lines:


We are human

We are the same


This is the point in the songwriting process where I begin reviewing the story to see if there is a particular emotion or message being communicated. Part of that message seemed to be the idea that everyone is in this together.


I find that the simpler the chorus, the more likely people will join in singing. Most people at the center are learning English, French, or Dutch. If they do not speak the language of the story or poem we are writing, they are often reticent to sing.


The chorus could have stayed this simple, but it felt like it was missing something. Mohammed is a poet and there is weight and beauty in his words. A song from Mohammed’s words will communicate something of great depth each time.


I asked him what he thought we could add to the chorus, and together we reviewed the story.


Don’t let our differences divide us

Let’s change


Then, Mohammed suggested phrases that mimicked the pattern from the first two lines:


I have changed

We can change


Should we repeat the line, Don’t let our differences divide us or write something new? I asked.


Mohammed suggested,


We can have a better life if we celebrate our divide

We can be free


I invited Mohammed to sing, but he always prefer for me to sing. So, I began fingerpicking on a Dm. I also played some major chords to see if he felt resonance with one or the other.


He explained that he liked the minor chord because it is a song that comes from a sad place.


I began to sing on the Dm. As often happens, the written words evolved as I sang.


We are human

We are the same


I feel like I want to sing the line, We are human, a second time, I said.


We are human


Then what? I asked.


But we can change, Mohammed answered.


Then I moved down to the line, We can have a better life if we celebrate our divide.


I stopped singing and began talking with Mohammed about the changes to the chorus, explaining to my friend’s son that we often rewrote the chorus many, many times over the course of writing a single song.


Mohammed spoke of his desire for the people of Gaza. I wrote the line A message to the people of Gaza because it seemed the song was taking on the shape of a call for action more than an expression of a particular emotion.


Years ago, I wrote a song from the story of a friend’s first winter in Alaska, when she and another woman invited everyone from the town to make snow angels together. The chorus from this song was a call to action, an invitation for everyone in the community to come together to create art from the natural world. The chorus was very simple:

Come make snow angels, snow angels with us

Come make snow angels, snow angels with us


Mohammed’s song was a call for action on a much deeper level, perhaps the deepest possible for a human being. To change their mind and heart to embrace people who are different.


I feel for the people they are suffering from the way they are thinking


How do you change people’s mind? I asked.


We have to talk to the mind of the people

To let them know the way they are living is wrong

We have to have peace. We have to love all the people of the world

We can be different. We have to care about people


Every time he spoke, I found space somewhere on the page to write his words:


The people in Gaza are suffering, and they know they are suffering


Mohammed suggested these two lines to add to the chorus:


We can be different, but we are still human

To have peace, we have to care about people

Don’t close your mind to life


How about this for a chorus? I asked.


We are human, we are the same

We are human, but we can change

We can have a better life if we celebrate our divide

Don’t close your mind to life


Then how should we end it?


Let’s change, he said.




We sang through these lines.


Now should we write verses from the story? What should happen next?


Life is beautiful, Mohammed said.


I wrote it down.


Enjoy your life, he continued.


I wrote it down.


Should we continue by repeating the pattern and rhythm from the first stanza? I asked.


We could write again, Life is beautiful. Then what?


Life is beautiful, change your mind.


No, open your mind, Mohammed corrected.


I crossed out change and wrote open above it.


Should we write a new line or repeat the ones from the first stanza? We could sing the same line, We can have a better life if we celebrate our divide.


He agreed.


But what if we change it to, You can have a better life?


He nodded in agreement.


I continued. Don’t close your mind to life, Let’s change.


But do we want to say open twice in two lines? I mean, it’s ok. We can do either way.


The truth was that I really liked the line he had come up with, Change your mind. However, I always want to be careful as I tread between following my own agenda vs. honoring the wishes of the person who has shared the story.


We discussed it, and he agreed to try change.


Then we changed the line, Don’t close your mind to life, to become, Open your mind to life.


Let’s try singing it, I suggested.


We sang. The only change I found my mouth wanting to make was to sing the word “And” instead of “Let’s” for the second “Let’s change.”


Open your mind to life, and change.


I brought out my bag of handheld rhythm instruments and passed them around. A resident who only spoke French had joined us. I wanted him to feel welcome to stay and to participate even though the song had been written in English. Mohammed offered an instrument to a teenage boy who had come to stand near him. He shook his head no, but he smiled and remained standing near us. Eventually, his younger sister came, and I offered the bag a second time and they both took an instrument. I realized toward the end of the song that their mom was recording and was overjoyed by their participation.


We sang through both phrases, but I still felt like something was missing.


We need Arabic, I said. I think it doesn’t make sense for this entire song to be written in English.


We went through the first stanza, line by line, adding Arabic words. There were so many syllables that I asked if there were words we could cut out but still hold the meaning. There are challenges to translating something from English in Arabic because Arabic is such a mystical, magical language that the translation doesn’t always work. Additionally, you wouldn’t phrase a sentence in the same way in Arabic as you would in English.


Nahanu Bashar

We are human


Nahanu mutasawean

We are the same


Mutasawean means together. This is an example of the difference in language. Together does not exactly mean the same, but it does mean that we can all be in this together, in community. We can all be accepted for who we are, even if we are different.


It was challenging to sing Nahanu Bashar, Nahanu mutasawean. So many syllables, so we cut out the second Nahanu.


Nahanu bashar, mutasawean


We did this for the second line as well:


Nahanu bashar, momken natareya became Nahanu bashar natareya


Momken means we can, but the essence of natareya also has the meaning of change happening.


Nahanu bashar, matasawean

Nahanu bashar, natareya


Then we repeated the two English lines and ended with the Arabic word for change, Natareya.


Et voila! A short and beautiful, if not simple, song.



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