At the refugee center, Sarah and I greet each other with joyful smiles and warm embrace. In all weather, we meet each other in the spot along the covered corridor by the wooden door. We have found that the tape sticks easier to the wood than the brick wall.
We never know if we will work with one person or many or if it will be just us, writing and singing and creating together. We have found that music draws people. Without fail, if I take out my ukulele and begin to strum and sing, people appear.
Having discovered this, we often begin by singing a song we already finished or that is still in the works. Our current favorite is “The Pigeon Song,” which we sing to honor all pigeons, alive, dead, or “on the river,” as Sarah said last Monday after I told her I had seen a pigeon floating by in the canal on my way from the metro to the center. Poor wee pigeon.
There have been many changes at the center since we began working together nearly two years ago, and these days we are pretty much left to our own devices. Staff no longer bring hot tea and coffee on cold, rainy Monday afternoons. So we bring our own volunteer appreciation sweets. Sarah brings cookies, and I bring a thermos of tea when the weather turns cold.
Sometimes, we frequent the little coffee shop “Le Phare” to warm up. It’s across the canal from the center and very cozy! We did this after our first chilly afternoon of the season this past Monday. It’s a lovely way to offer self-appreciation for the work we do and thaw our freezing feet and hands.
Sarah treated us to tall glasses of steaming chai, one normal and one with oat milk.
You’re normal! I joked when they waitress brought them over and asked who had the normal one. My husband’s motto for his family is “anything but normal.”
We laughed. I should have tried oat milk, Sarah said. I don’t need regular milk.
It’s really good. We tried it one time when it was on sale. I think it’s the “in” thing right now. We really like it.
We chatted about the center, the changes, the ups and downs. It was like a little debrief session. I cherish moments like these. It’s a rare gift to find a kindred spirit to collaborate with in the creative process, and I love working with Sarah. She’s easy going and brimming with joy. She’s also a wonderful writer and we have fun, which I think is important in the creative process and also in the life of a long term volunteer. Being an artist can be lonely. I get to points in a song where I just don’t know how to move forward. I love being able to work with a person who shares ideas, which inspire my own ideas. Collaboration can be a synchronous, symbiosis, which yields deeply meaning results. Sarah has a magical way with words and an openness to try new things. She doesn’t hold on tightly to one idea and allows the poem to move into song with fluidity and grace. Sarah also has an incredible gift for drawing people into the process even if they think they don’t have a story or are shy to participate.
Together, we create and support each other without taking ourselves too seriously. And we laugh. A lot.
Just yesterday, one of the residents asked Sarah if she was the manager of our project. He said that if she was we should hire a new manager because she doesn’t sing or play an instrument. We laughed a lot over that and explained that we worked together and shared different, complementary skills.
Later over chai, we laughed again. It’s hard to know what the residents think of our work, and I imagine there is much that is lost in cultural and linguistic translation. We tend to work mostly with men, though here and there a woman will join us and participate. I have the feeling that most of the women are busy caring for children. The men are often idle, sitting on benches outside the center and around the neighborhood. Sarah said this can make people in the neighborhood nervous.
They say the refugees are just sitting around, and it’s true. But it’s not because they want to. They are waiting to find work and hear news about whether they can stay, Sarah explained.
It reminds me of Mohammed’s song, the lines, “I came here to find humanity, but they forgot about me.” It takes so much effort for them to get here, and then they just have to wait.
Last Monday, I met a resident who had just been granted asylum. He had been at the center just shy of 10 years and in Belgium for 14.
That’s very unusual, Sarah has said. Most residents are here for several months or up to a few years.
This is already a long time to wait, especially when it seems so many of the men have left family behind. They don’t realize they will likely be apart from their loved ones for such a long time, alone in a foreign land they worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get to and where so many don’t want them, deeming them “dangerous.”
There is so much fear in the world, and more and more I believe it is empathy alone that can save us from ourselves. It begins with self-empathy and expands to include all of those beings we so readily create stories about.
We do the best we can to offer moments of calm, creativity, and compassion.
We reach a lot of people, but it’s for a short moment. And it’s ok that it’s like that, Sarah said.
Maybe we create a moment of peace in a storm for someone, I responded. Just the other day, a resident told me that he had been so stressed out and that after two minutes of listening to us sing he felt much more calm.
It’s important to honor these individuals and their experiences. That’s really what a poem is. It’s a recognition. We are showing that their story has meaning, value. That they have value, Sarah continued. I think Bertin was really moved to hear us sing his song.
A resident who had shared a couple of lines in French a couple of weeks ago came by this past Monday, and we sang the song we had created around his words. We often will take words or phrases that do not end up in a song one week and find a way to honor them in a song on another visit.
He beamed and thanked us when we had finished.
Ici nous arrivons
Ici nous partirons
Translation in English:
Here we arrive
Here we leave
Let’s be united
Bertin explained to us that the deeper meaning was the idea that it is from the land “la terre” that we come to exist and back to the land we go when we die. So really, we are all the same and should be united together.
This has been an ongoing theme that has found its way into several songs with ideas like everyone’s blood is red and a recent Arabic phrase that translated into the English, Enjoy/treasure the moment, even if it’s small/short.
We created a song a couple of Mondays ago (I think…I start to lose track sometimes) from this Arabic phrase and returned to the French words from Bertin for the refrain.
Here is the final version of the song. It can still continue to change and take shape, as it is a folk song, dynamic and alive through the voice of each person who listens and sings along.
Treasure the moment
Even if it’s small
Smile for everyone
It’s the same earth for us all
Life is fleeting
We are all on the same boat
From this earth we arrive
And from this land we go
Ce n’est que la vie
Nous sommes ensemble
Together, you and me
Ici nous arrivons
Ici nous partirons
Nous sommes ensemble
We must carry on
This is our life
This is our earth
This is our death
And this is our birth
You can’t take it with you
You cannot stop the tide
So let’s go together
On this sometimes stormy ride
Together we laugh
Together we cry
Together we live
Together we die
Sarah copied the words to a new page. The first and sometimes second pages we fill with phrases on the path to a song are often covered with words crossed out, arrows, and numbers to map the progress and order of the arrangement.
Then she translated the bridge into Nederlands and we began asking for help translating into Arabic as well. This brought on a heated debate, which extended to the original lines in Arabic for the song. Istamtah beh-woktech kana khalil (our attempt at phonetic spelling with English letters), which we had thought we had figured out. This happens frequently from week to week. There seems to be a spectrum of possibilities when it comes to translating English to Arabic and vice versa. The meanings of Arabic words and phrases are so mystical and magical, I think English can fall short of truly and authentically capturing the deeper sense.
In the end, we sang as much as we had created, and we were happy. With a folk song, there may be a clear beginning but there is often no clear end. Kind of a metaphor for life, non?