What gives you hope?

Monday at the refugee center was hopping. When I first began volunteering in January 2017, it had been a residential center. There were residents who have been living there for years, waiting to hear if they would be able to stay in Belgium. Over the past nearly three years of volunteering, I have seen the center shift into a transit center. It is now the first place people visit in Brussels in order to apply for asylum in Belgium.


I am only there on Monday afternoons so I don’t know if it is this active every day, but these afternoons are definitely busy. In the two hours Sarah and I invited people to participate in poetry and songwriting, we witnessed the passing of many tours led by Fedasil staff, each with at least 5-10 people. The people looked dazed as they passed by us. We said “hello” and “welcome to Belgium.”


We hadn’t seen each other in two weeks. Sarah had been vacationing in the south of France with her family. We were thrilled to be together and also exchanged some gifts. Sarah brought the smell of the South of France by way of a sachet of lavender (yum!) and a beautiful pair of earrings that reminded me of the sea. I was excited because I had found a set of dishes with pigeons on them at a brocante the weekend before. They were dishes a man from Mexico had brought with him to Belgium. His family had bought them from an artisan several decades before, but they were just sitting in a box in his basement. I decided it would be fun to split the set so Sarah would have half and I would have half. Wherever we found ourselves in the world, our pigeon plates would continue to remind us of each other.


On our afternoons together, we often will sing an already written song as a way to invite people to participate in the creation of something new. We have found that music acts as a kind of magnet. On quiet afternoons, people seem to appear from out of nowhere the moment we begin to sing. Music is a universal language. It brings people together, lifts spirits, and helps to create a safe space, a sanctuary for sharing our voices.


On this particular afternoon, the center was already pulsing with energy. There were residents seated on all of the benches that lined the wall of the covered outdoor corridor that faces out onto the open courtyard. There were young residents with a little digital speaker, playing music, and I suggested that perhaps we should commence working on a song instead of playing music so as not to interrupt them.


Sarah showed me a photo of a quote from the place she had stayed. It was attributed to the Dalai Lama from the 14th century and had been translated into French.


La chaleur humaine permet l’ouverture. Vous découvrez que tous les êtres humains sont comme vous, tout simplement.


The English translation is far less poetic than the original French, but it gives you an idea:


Human warmth allows an opening. You discover that all human beings are like you, simple as that.


We hung up the paper from our previous session, which offered the beginnings of a poem about hope. The first person we worked with several weeks earlier had shared these words:


Every day I wake up smiling

Smile every day

It can turn the stranger into someone else

Like me

[someone] I could share this moment with

We are not alone


We couldn’t remember but thought these had been the words from a man from Albania and that his words (I looked at my notes and can now tell you the resident was from Turkey) had prompted us to write the question: What is the recipe for hope? We had asked him to share more, and he had kept repeating his recipe: smile.


Another woman had arrived that same afternoon and written her own recipe for hope:


Every day I pray

I am thankful

I am never without hope

I pray to Allah every day

This gives me strength


We reflected on these words and added the words a resident had written in response to the question: What gives you hope? Which Sarah had written on several piece of paper on our poetry wall, each piece of paper with the question posed in a different language.


What gives you hope?



Quoi vous donne l’espoir?



Wat geefte je hoop?



We decided to write the quote from the Dalai Lama beneath the French version of the question, what gives you hope?


Below the question in English, someone had written the words:


Truth—It sets us free!


I added it to our poetry and song sheet of paper.


A woman from Congo walked by and shared her thoughts:


L’espoir est dans l’interieur

Même si tu es fatigue, c’est l’esperance qui donne la force


Hope is inside

Even if you are tired, it is hope which gives you strength


Many people stopped by to see what we were up to, and we did our best to explain. I used my Google translate app, adding at least three keyboards to my iPhone in order to communicate back and forth with residents from Afghanistan and Russia. An older Russian woman was using her phone to video chat with someone who wanted to know why we were writing. She showed them my explanation on Google translate on my own phone and then slowly passed her phone over several of the words on the written page.


By the end, we had a mix of languages and messages about hope. Sarah posted a new page, and we tried one possible option for verses and a chorus, using as many of the original words as we could. The chorus became a kind of call and response in answer to the verse.



Every day I wake up smiling

I smile every day

It makes a difference to/for me



What gives you hope?
A smile gives me hope

It makes me feel that I am not alone

It turns the stranger into someone

I could share this moment with



Every day I am thankful

I’m never without hope

Even if I’m tired

C’est l’esperance qui donne la force


What gives you hope?

Children give me hope

My child, your child, any child, every child

When someone makes a child happy

I feel hope



My life is an Afghan country

And the fires of the energy are there/within

This land of Belgium is worth living in

I pray every day that I can stay


What gives you hope?

You give me hope

I pray to Allah, Jesus, Buddha

Whoever you are

You give me hope


A few children arrived. They were each given a hand shaker to play, and we attempted to sing through the song. As usual, the tidy words we wrote changed as we sang. It was awkward, and we laughed and persevered.


It’s most important just to sing, and this song will reveal itself to us as it is ready.


What gives you hope?

Music gives me hope

A melody for our words

We send it out into the world

A song from our stories gives me hope

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