There are themes that seem to resurface time again in the time I have spent, volunteering at the refugee asylum center. When I worked with a woman from Macedonia on her song, I asked her to tell me her greatest desire. She responded, I want a peaceful life for my children. In several songs, people have shared the idea of equality and the qualities we all share as a species:
We are all equal, but not treated equally
We are human, we are the same
Even if the color of our eyes and our skin is different, know that the color of our blood is red
We all drink water, we are all made of flesh and blood
We all have beating hearts, and we can love
I have worked with people from all over the world. Many come from Palestine. For a long time, I was reticent to share my Jewish heritage with the many people who arrived from Palestine. The first time I told someone I was Jewish was in response to the image they had drawn of the Israeli flag and the words “Kill Israelis.” The message was written in Arabic, so I had to ask what it meant. The resident pointed to another person there, who was missing his legs because of bombs sent to Gaza from Israel. Every so often, a person will ask if they can write something that is mean or unfriendly, and I always ask them to refrain. Sarah and I both try to create a safe space in our sessions.
I recall being taken aback by the violent nature of the person’s stance. He pointed to his friend, who was missing his legs from Israeli bombs. I did tell him that I was Jewish, and he was surprised. He left us for a moment and then returned and apologized. I told him there was no need to apologize, that I could understand he was angry. Even though we did not speak the same language, we communicated over the course of the afternoon through gesticulations (I made a lot of heart shapes with my index fingers and thumbs and held my hands in front of my heart as I made the shape). I tried to explain that there were kind and unkind people everywhere and not just in Israel. By the end, the resident drew an Israeli and Palestinian flag and two stick fingers beneath, holding hands. It was a good moment in Middle East peace relations.
Over the past two weeks, I have had the gift of writing a song with a resident who recently arrived in Belgium from Gaza. With the ever-changing nature of the asylum center (we have been told it is in the process of being transformed from a residential to a transit center), it has been a while since we have had people join us for more than one session. This fellow came to Belgium with his wife and young son because he did not want his son “to grow up with hate in his heart.”
The first Monday we worked together, I had spent quite a bit of time alone since Sarah was in Scotland with family. I had brought poetry sheets from previous visits and begun to shape the words into the beginnings of a song while Fedasil staff led university students on a tour of the center. I became a stop on the tour. I felt a bit like wildlife at the zoo, especially because they were speaking in Nederlands and pointing at me. I waved, and smiled, and carried on with my work.
I spent time writing out stories from previous sessions and filming the pigeons. One pigeon was hobbling around with one foot that was just a knob, so toes at all. I am ever in awe of their ability to survive awful conditions. For me, pigeons are a metaphor for those members of society that so many wish to ignore or would prefer were not there as a reminder of how difficult life can be.
Time passed, and then a woman named Nita from Albania came and wrote on the page in Albanisch. She wasn’t sure what to write, so we used Google translate for me to suggest that she write her dream for the future. Then, we used Google translate so I could write her words in English as well.
After Nita left, a woman named Fatima from Chad came over and wrote on the page, Il ne vaut que l’amour. When a resident named Sahir and a few others who had recently arrive that week from Gaza came over with a few other residents, I invited him to write something as well. I said that any of them could write in any language.
They were all a bit shy, so I offered to sing some of the songs we had already written for them. I passed around my little bag of handheld rhythm instruments, and everyone, including Fatima, took one to play.
Sarah and I have found that playing music and singing can draw people in. Music is a universal language all its own. The notes of the melody can speak to a person even if they are not familiar with the language of the lyrics.
After I sang several songs, I explained that had written the songs there at the center with other residents who came before them. Maybe this process helped ease them in to feel more comfortable participating. Maybe it was the sunshine. There was a definite shift toward a feeling of a shared space and purpose, and a couple took pens to begin to write. They wrote on the smaller blank pages Sarah had posted on her poetry wall the week before.
Sahir seemed to want to practice his English, so I offered to write on the larger piece of paper while he spoke to try to make the process a little easier.
We have no means to live in Gaza
We come here to live a good, peaceful life
Politics make our life miserable
And we are tired from war
We are all human
We all have the same blood
We want to live in peace, together
It doesn’t matter who you are
You are human
He carried on by describing a time “long ago” when there was peace between Palestine and Israel. Later, he explained that this was when he and the other men who had recently arrived were young boys. It was a brief period, and as violence escalated their entire perspective on how to be in the world and how to resolve problems shifted toward violence as well.
I wrote his words as he spoke. Then, we looked at the sheet of paper together. I drew lines between the section of words that seemed more like a verse and the section that seemed to lend itself to a possible chorus. I drew arrows for a possible order of phrases for the chorus and asked Sahir if he would be willing to try singing some or all of those words.
Let me pause for a moment to say that this next step of diving right into singing is a speeded up version of songwriting. Since I am only at the center for a couple of hours, I try to write at least a chorus we can sing and that I can send to the person so they have a song that is theirs alone.
The invitation I extend to people to sing their words it not always accepted with enthusiasm. Though I do believe there is a special connection between a person’s voice, the melody, and their story, I never force a person to sing. The song reveals itself in many ways, and sometimes I am the melodic conduit (if you will).
Many people tend to be reticent to sing. It is an act of vulnerability and courage to share one’s experiences, to put them on the page for all to see. I think there is something more raw and open to sharing our voice in song than in speaking (and speaking can be scary as well, particularly in a foreign language).
Sahir went for it. He later joked that all of the pigeons left and flew to Gaza as soon as he began to sing. (I will tell you that the pigeons remained, and his voice was beautiful. I have yet to hear a voice that is not beautiful in its own unique way).
I believe that each culture presents a specific definition for what is considered beautiful and valuable for each aspect of being—physical appearance, voice, career, family, intelligence, etc.—and it is from this set of definitions that we place our own individual traits against for comparison. I have found that in the United States, there is also a tendency to look for the negative in how people present themselves to the world. If I adhere to this protocol, I am irked and find ugliness but if I work to look for the positive, it is all I see.
If we had more time, I would perhaps determine the exact notes he was singing and look for a pattern, a kind of musical equation that is a dance between the notes and the probable chords within the scale of the key in which he was singing. This is one way to continue creating a melody from the beginning notes a person sings.
At the center, I often play chords to provide some musical support while a person sings. I pause at a time when they seem to naturally come to a stop, and I reflect back to them the notes I heard them sing. I ask if they want to change it. Then, we sing together. I always make recordings using a voice memo app because it is so easy to forget the often subtle combination of notes a person shares, particularly when I am playing chords and there is so much going on around us. At the center, there is activity all of the time. There is traffic and sirens outside of the center. In the courtyard where we offer our Monday afternoon sessions, there are people walking by, children playing (when it’s warmer and the sun decides to shine), and just a general feeling of organized chaos. Imagine writing a song on a sidewalk in New York City.
I am always moved by hearing this magical moment of inner voice revealing itself in connection to a personal story. In this moment of creation, I also loved witnessing Sahir take ownership of the creative process.
He started singing the words I had thought could become a chorus:
We are all human
We all have the same blood
Instead of moving to the next line or the one I had drawn an arrow to, he sang the line:
We are tired
And then he quickly added the words “from war,” which I wrote with a marker after we had finished that first round of singing.
We sang through the chorus several times, and then I suggested moving to some of the other phrases. I played a different chord to inspire a shift in the melody. Often at the center, we wind up singing the same melody for the entire song. This can make it easier for people to singing alone, especially if we keep the words simple and succinct.
If there is time and I am able to take a moment to ground and reflect on possible chords in the scale that might work well for creating a different melody for the verse, then I go for it. The more time I spend at the center, composing in the midst of chaos, the more comfortable I become with the songwriting process. I have found that over the course of two years, I experience less panic and doubt that I will be able to successfully guide people through the process of composing a song. These days, I seem to just do it without thinking so much, and more important, without the nagging from my inner critic. I have more trust in my own ability and in the process itself. I am not alone in creating. There is my co-volunteer, Sarah, the people sharing their experiences, and the song, which I believe has its own will and ideas of how things will go. I am simply a piece in a bigger creative puzzle. Together with all of the elements involved, we are painting a music portrait of a moment in a human life.
Back to the song, Sahir and I sang through the words with tentative melodies. We sang through the chorus and a possible first verse several times before calling it a day. Sahir continued to make changes as he sang, and I filled in the words.
When he sang the phrase, “There was a peaceful time, a long time ago,” he replaced “peaceful” with “beautiful” and dropped the words “a” and “time” so it became:
There was a beautiful time, long ago
Over the next several days, I found myself running through the song and trying different variations on the melodic theme as well as different possible orders for the words.
I really liked the way the phrase “Politics make our life miserable” could flow naturally from the words “Palestine and Israel,” but I wasn’t quite sure how to bring it all together.
The solution came the following Monday. Sarah had returned from Scotland and was already at the center when I arrived. To my surprise and delight, Sahir was there with her and he had brought a few new residents. The creation process took off from where we had left it the week before. The sun was shining, and there was energy and engagement. The new folks who joined us wrote their own words on the smaller sheets of paper on the poetry wall. One man wrote about his dream to finish university. He told us that he had completed two years of school in Gaza and wasn’t sure what he would do here. A young woman came and wrote words from a John Lennon song.
I read the words of the chorus out loud so Sarah could write them onto a new sheet of paper. Then I read the words of the verse and made a couple of suggestions for small changes. I asked Sahir if the changes were all right with him. I think it is important to remember my role as a guide. It is not my story. I am bearing witness to the experience while helping to draw the song into the world, but it is not my song alone.
We then revisited the other words we had composed from the week before and asked him questions as we began to shape a second and third verse. I will often ask leading questions to try to learn more about the person’s experience and to hear more of their words. I sometimes take notes as they speak.
Sarah had written the lines:
There was a beautiful time, long ago
When we lived in peace together
I suggested we follow with Sahir’s exact words, followed by the phrasing I had been imagining the previous week:
Now we’ve lost everything, Palestine and Israel
Politics make us miserable
I dropped the “our life” in order to opt for a shorter phrase that would be easier to sing and that would fit with the rhythm of the melody we had been singing in the version from the previous Monday.
I returned to his words from the original song sheet. He had described an annual trend where each year “they” (I imagine this means those who hold the political strings) gave everyone a break from the seemingly endless violence.
I repeated the words, and Sarah wrote them. Sahir responded by saying,
Then war comes back again
I suggested the lines that had followed those from the past Monday:
There is not fighting for one month, maybe two
Sarah suggested we finish with, Then rockets fly
There was a thought to end with “every time,” but Sarah liked ending with silence after “rockets fly.” There can be a power in singing fewer words, allowing the spaces to share their own meaning.
We sang through what we had written so far, and then we had a discussion about why Sahir decided to leave Gaza and bring his family to Belgium. He spoke about his experience in high school, where violence was the answer to everything. He had scars on his body from all of the fighting.
I don’t want my son to grow up in violence like me, he said.
We talked about leadership modeling this violent behavior. With this kind of behavior coming from their leaders, it seemed only natural that people did not envision peaceful solutions to their own problems.
As he spoke about his son and family, I noticed that I was experiencing a desire to create a bridge to share this idea and bring everything together.
I returned once more to his original words:
We have no means to live in Gaza
We come here to live a good, peaceful life
Sarah suggested we write Belgium and repeat the line that had started to weave itself through the song:
We come to Belgium to live in peace
Sarah offered the idea of writing about bringing his family here to make a new start, and I finished with a line of words as Sahir had spoken them:
I want my song to grow up without hate in his heart
What is the Arabic word for peace? Sarah asked.
Salaam, Sahir told us.
What if we repeat the words for peace in Arabic and Hebrew to bring the bridge to a close and then return to the chorus to finish the song? I suggested.
This is just what we did.
Salaam. Shalom. Salaam. Shalom.
Back to the chorus.
I told Sahir that first Monday that I came from a family of Jewish people. We spoke about the fact that we could and should be friends. Our time together, choosing friendship over fear and peace over violence may never make the news. Our song may never go viral. But I don’t think it matters. However small we may seem in the grand scheme of the world, for us this was an important moment for humankind.