Free like a smile

Every Monday I visit the Fedasil Petit-Château Klein Kasteeljte is an opportunity to capture a moment in time in both poetry and song. My co-volunteer Sarah and I often take a bit of a pause in the summer months. It has been increasingly hot in Brussels, and it is important to allow for some downtime to recharge our creative batteries.


We decided to meet at the center yesterday, intending to stay for a just a little while and then have a tea or coffee at the hip coffee shop across the canal so we could talk about our application for an upcoming event for creative writing and art and refugees in Brussels. As with so many of my plans, this one did not work out as planned. Also as with my plans, the unanticipated shift was for the better.


I arrived at the center a few minutes before Sarah and walked over to our bench. I noticed two residents sitting there and was a bit hesitant to interrupt them. Maybe they didn’t want someone there. Maybe they would feel like they had to move.


I set my instrument and bag down, greeted them in English and French, and commenced organizing our poetry wall. It had been a few weeks since either Sarah or I had visited the center, and the wall was definitely in need of a little TLC.


Sarah regularly posted written invitations in many languages for the residents to share their poetry on the wall. She left blank pages and a new pen, which would inevitably disappear over the course of the week. There were new poems on the wall and old ones that had survived in our absence.




Then, I sat down and tried talking with them about our poetry and music and quickly realized we did not have a common language between us. These men were from Armenia.


Undeterred, I took out my ukulele and opened my case of handheld rhythm instruments. Music would be our common language for the moment.


They both seemed a bit reticent to play, so I left the case beside them as I tuned my ukulele. Sarah arrived as I was tuning and asked what song I was going to play. She took out songbooks and handed one to the younger of the two men.


We sang, and they both took an instrument and joined in. The younger man even began to sing along.


I realized later that it was in playing the music that I was able to “explain” the work we do. They had witnessed the finished product, and then they were excited to participate. It took a couple of additional communications through Google translate to explain that they could share words and phrases in their mother tongue and then we could work on translation to English and other languages. But we were off to a good start.


I had been worried about bothering these two strangers, but they quickly became friends. The first words they wrote were about Sarah and me; we were cheerful and wonderful and they loved us very much.




From there, people passed by and inquired into what we were doing. Some stayed and shared their experiences and ideas on the written page. Others showed us translations on their phones. A couple stopped by. One wrote the words on the page while the other looked up the translation into English.




The words from this couple were creating a theme, the idea that all people are one. As a species, we are connected as if we were all parts of one body. So if one person experiences suffering, all other people will feel this suffering. And for the joy, they will feel joy. If a person does not notice or feel the suffering of another, they are not truly human.


The wives of the two men from Armenia joined the group and added their own written words to the second blank page Sarah taped to the wall.


We translated from Armenian to English:


God bless everybody

Let the smile always be independent of nationality


This theme echoed many of the songs we have been writing over the past several months; the idea that people should be free to cross borders, just as the sun and birds are free. This is freedom. This is happiness. It is fear and the sense of urgency to protect nationality that causes nations to close their borders to those in need of sanctuary.


Every person should be free to choose where they will live. Every person deserve to live in peace and to provide a safe and joyful home for their children. The tenets of nationalism should not inhibit people from this basic right of existence.


Sarah and I do not have the ability to grant asylum to any of the residents we meet at the center. What we can offer is a safe space for the exchange of ideas. We share stories from all of our life experiences. We share hopes and dreams and fears. We share poetry and music.


As people came and went, we sat down to begin to create a song from the words these people had shared on this sunny Monday afternoon in Brussels. We sat on the ground to write on the remaining blank space on the page.


WhatsApp Image 2019-08-05 at 9.24.56 PM

Beginnings of a possible refrain:


Let me be free like a smile

Free from your judgments of me

Let me be free like an idea

Free from your fear of me

Let us be free


We spoke back and forth, coming up with possible phrases and variations on the written words. The word free came up most frequently, along with the idea of what it might mean to create an identity uninhibited or limited by the notion of nationality; the idea of a world where people could just be people, unencumbered by fear or judgment from others.


I’m searching for an identity

That isn’t based on nationality

What could it be? Who could it be?


I am a person without a promised land

I’m looking for someone who will understand

Could it be you? Can you see me?

As more than you want me to be/not only as you want me to be


Another person came and wrote the words Every day is a new day in German.


Elke dag is een nieuwe dag


As tends to happen, as soon as we began to sing the words took on new life and shape. The words and melodies dancing and changing in a kind of co-evolution, and our own mouths choosing words and changing the order of phrases to create lines of musical poetry that felt more natural to sing.


Instruments were passed around, we sang together through several rounds of the beginnings of a song.


It was a small but poignant step toward freedom. In this moment together, we transcended nationality and brought joy free from tyranny into the world.


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