Sarah and I often talk about how we really never know what will happen on each Monday visit to the refugee center. There are times where we sit and chat on the bench by our worksite, with only each other and the pigeons in the courtyard for company.
We decided long ago that even if we did not produce a poem or a song on any particular visit, our positive presence was still important enough to warrant returning each Monday afternoon from 14h to 16h (United States translation 2pm-4pm).
This past Monday began with a catching up conversation on our usual bench. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of weeks because my dad had been visiting and I was too exhausted the previous Monday to make the trek to the center from my home on the outer edge of Brussels proper.
People walked by, some asking questions about the location of places indicated on their formal entry documents. We did our best to help and point them in the right direction or at least toward someone who could orient them.
A family walked by and said hello in Spanish then other languages. This happens frequently at the center because we never know what mother tongue a person speaks or what languages they have been in the process of learning on their long journey to get to Belgium.
I did my best to explain our poetry and songwriting venture in my broken Spanish. (Even though I dreamed of learning French as a child, I had been convinced by adults in my life to study Spanish because there was more of a chance that I would use it given the influx of Spanish speakers from Mexico and other countries south of the border). I know now that French would have served me far better in the path my life has taken, but no matter. I can understand a lot of Spanish, not necessarily thanks to my public school education training, which was mediocre at best. One of my high school teachers had such a strong boston accent that she would pronounce Spanish words with an “r” on the end.
For example: Mi caser es su caser.
My Spanish classroom name was Margarita, but she pronounced it Mah-garita.
Now when I try to respond in Spanish, it is only French words that come to mind. I muddled along. When I ended with “Bienvenida” (Welcome), the mother came over and gave me a big hug.
This was a moment where I knew it didn’t matter if we wrote a song. what mattered was that we helped this person and her family feel welcome, like they mattered.
People give up everything to come to Belgium in search of a better life. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to arrive and realize that there are so many people who do not want you here, who see you as the source of economic and social problems. No matter how many statistics prove this otherwise, fear of the “other” and ignorance continue to prevail over reason, empathy, acceptance, and love.
Two weeks ago, we wrote a song with a resident who had recently arrived from Somalia.
He described the process of leaving Somalia to come to Belgium:
We sacrifice everything. We die to live.
What must it feel like to arrive and instead of being welcomed to become another “problem refugee?”
To try to shift this energy toward the positive, Sarah and I have taken to welcoming people and thanking them for coming to Belgium. We tell them we are glad they are here. We are excited to share our stories, our culture, our language, and the experiences that have shaped us and made us who we are.
As we sat on the bench, I said to Sarah, I still just don’t understand why a person is not able to decide they want to live somewhere and to just go. Why do we have to go through all of this visa and paperwork?
I mused aloud, What if we just opened the borders? Where do you think people would go?
We chatted a bit more; then Sarah asked if we should go ahead and post a blank page on the wall.
Sure, I said. Should we start with those words at the top of the page?
What if we opened the borders?
Where would everybody go?
When a resident from Burundi in a wheelchair asked if we could help him get his chair over a difficult edge, we began talking. We told him about our poetry and songwriting. He spoke French and English very well, and it turned out he was a musician and had brought his guitar. We have met many musicians, but most have to leave their instruments behind, taking only what they can carry on their back when they leave their home country.
I went to fetch this fellow’s guitar, and then he suggested we play something together. He began playing chords, which I mimicked. It turned out we were playing a George Harrison song, My sweet lord. Another resident came over, and Sarah took rhythm instruments from the bag so they could both “shake” and hum along.
These were the chords we played:
I didn’t know the words, so I hummed the melody in as much as I could remember it.
After, we invited the woman who had joined us to write a poem and song, but she said she didn’t speak any English or French and couldn’t see very well. This was fine. Not everyone wants to participate. It was wonderful for her to join in a capacity in which she was comfortable, and hopefully it brought some positive energy to her day.
We moved over to our page on the wall, and he studied the words. Then he began speaking.
He shared a theme that has become a common one with our poetry and songwriting, namely the idea that there are creatures for whom there are no borders. One of these beings are birds. They have the freedom to fly and land wherever they choose.
Sarah wrote as he spoke, and she and I also shared ideas.
What if we opened the borders?
Where would everybody go?
Like a bird, I wonder would we choose one place or migrate
No pain, no visa
Only the power of our wings and our heart to decide
He then shared words in Swahili along with their English translation:
Hakuna Matata, Hakuna Silah
No worries, no guns
I offered my small memory of Swahili words from a family trip to Tanzania after my first year at university.
Which he translated to:
Pétit a pétit
We spoke about how even though a bird was free, there were still dangers.
Even a bird can be hunted
Thinking about the relationship between raptors and smaller songbirds, I added,
There is danger in the sky
Our friend shared a point of importance,
You can land where you want
And we wrote the line above,
But also freedom to decide
It was after this beginning back and forth, of writing our thoughts and ideas on the page that something truly magical began to happen.
Our friend from Burundi began to share phrases in Swahili, which eventually became the basis for our chorus.
Sarah helped to wheel him close enough to the page that he could write the words himself:
He wrote the word Chorus, followed by four phrases in Swahili:
Chorus: Toshikané Mikono
Then we translated the words into English and French:
Hand in hand
Mains dans la main
On arrivera en paix
In peace we land
In our discussion, it took a little while to translate the deeper sense of the idea in French “on arrivera en paix” (we arrive in peace) into English.
My first thought was “we create a life of peace” or “a world of peace,” but our friend was searching for something different. As I have learned, in these situations it is important for me to not to hold too tightly to my ideas and to let all voices guide the process.
Finally, we came with the idea to shift the order of the words in French:
En paix, on arrivera
In peace, we land
It is at this point where I wil often ask the resident we have been working with if they will sing some of the words. Here, I had no need to ask. Our friend from Burundi began to sing the words of the chorus. He then asked for me to bring him his guitar and began to pick out chords to match his melody.
It was both beautiful and moving to watch. It was also a relief. I put immense pressure on myself to “deliver” when I am at the center. I want to be able to give the gift of song to each person who shares their words and experiences with us on the written page. Here was a moment where I could relax and follow another musician’s lead.
It was also a joyful experience to be able to play music with such a gifted musician, to share our voices in song and the strumming of fretted instruments, guitar and ukulele.
We sang and then shifted the order of the words.
As we were working on the melody and the chorus, two more residents approached and Sarah invited them to write on the page as well. One resident watched because it was Ramadan so he was not able to work or write while the other wrote in Dari about his hope to create a new life in Belgium.
He then wrote the words phonetically in English to help us translate and a translation in English to accompany each line.
As he was writing, I was both developing the melody and order of phrasing with the resident from Burundi and beginning to worry about how I was going to bring in these Dari words in order to honor everyone who was now involved in the creation of the song. I would not feel right if the song did not also include this new person’s words from the heart.
And they were truly words from the heart.
I want to make a new life here in Belgium.
I recognized the word for life in Dari because it formed the basis of the very first song I wrote at the center, which was also inspired by the Dari phrase, Zindgi shams dawam dara, which has been translated two different ways by two different residents with Dari as their mother tongue:
In life, there are second chances
Life gives second changes
I quickly reviewed the many lines of phonetic writing and asked him to tell me the meaning of the very last phrase:
Zindgi aram dashta Bahim.
He told me it meant: Relax. Live for all time.
What if we chant this at the end? I suggested. This was one possible way to incorporate the Dari into the song, which thus far had been written predominantly in Swahili, English, and French.
It was also a way to honor both residents. Often in this process, people take ownership of the song and are not always please if/when someone else comes and wants to add new ideas. The man from Burundi who had helped to create the beginnings of the song, and I wanted to honor his words and effort while also supporting this new person.
We sang through the chorus several times.
The man from Burundi said we must change the melody for the verses. Often, we sing the same melody because it is a way to keep the song simple and for residents to more readily be able to learn both melody and words to join in singing together.
I was happy in this moment to step back and allow the process to unfold.
Our friend from Burundi sang,
Open the borders, open the borders
It should be a different rhythm, he said.
Sarah asked, like a rap?
We sang many different variations of verses, which incorporated different words from the page, always going back to the chorus, where we harmonized and repeated the final phrase, Nabila Silah, with different variations on the melody and chord structure.
In the end, we had created something magical. As usual, the music had drawn other residents and staff like a magnet to our creative circle. People filmed on their phones. We handed out rhythm instruments.
And we sang, over and over and over again until it was time for us to leave.
As we made our way out of the center, Sarah and I again marveled at the magic of the moment and how we really never knew what each visit had in store. I can say that my entire being had shifted from the experience. I had arrived exhausted and overwhelmed by life, and I was leaving filled with joy and hope and the bliss in my entire being that only the universal language of music can create.