Before the music

This Monday at Petit-Château was about as dismal at a November afternoon in Brussels can be. A friend came with me who had wanted to experience our poetry and songwriting for a long time. I am always nervous on these occasions because I want them to have a positive experience. My first snafu was nearly forgetting to mention that we do our creative work outside, and I caught my friend just in time for her to run home and bundle up. She made it nearly an hour and a half and then said we would have to saw her frozen feet off if she stayed any longer.


While we did not manage to begin composing the musical component of the creative process during the hour and a half, we had several very meaningful interactions with residents at the center.


A mother and her young son from Syria were seated on the bench beside our poetry wall when we first arrived, and we invited them to play instruments while we sang a song for them from The Refugee Songbook. The young boy was very excited to shake his egg shaker to the tune.

WhatsApp Image 2019-11-18 at 9.22 PM

I used Google translate to explain our process to a man from Iraq, who introduced himself and shared a few phrases in Arabic before leaving for an appointment with a psychologist. He later returned and told us more about his life, wrote a few more phrases, and shared beautiful photos and stories about his family.


His first phrase:

Life in Iraq is difficult


Upon his return, an interpreter walked by—there are often interpreters at the center who assist with the asylum registration and orientation process for new residents—who happened to speak both Arabic and English and was able to help us translate the resident’s words:


We are suffering in Iraq.

Please help us bring back our smile.

They are protesting now.

There is no money. No work. No life.


He had lost his three brothers in Iraq before leaving the country. He showed us a photo of his dead brother. He had five children, three sons and two daughters. He showed us photos of his children and grandchildren. We saw laughing, smiling faces of gorgeous, tiny beings. I hope I will remember for a long time the poignant image of Fatima seated on a prayer mat, very serious in the first photo and then face turned up to the sky in the second. I can see one of his grandsons on his shoulder, a smile full of unmitigated joy on his face.


In some photos, he pointed out the people who were no longer living. We saw photos from their time in Greece and photos of friends still in Greece. After he left us, I tried to write as much as I could remember on the paper Sarah had posted to the wall.


A large family from Guatemala came by, and I did my best to describe our poetry and songwriting in Spanish. We sang The Pigeon Song, the children adding splashes of sound with the egg shakers from my traveling bag of handheld rhythm instruments.


The chorus of this song is about how we are not very different from birds. The deeper meaning is that we are all—humans, birds, and beyond—not so different and so we should share each moment with one another as a celebration of life.


After we sang the song, the mother thanked us and wrote on the page:


Gracias por hacerme sentir parte de ti y por no hacerme sentir diferente.


Thank you for making me feel part of you and for not making me feel different.


I felt a sense of sad irony. Here I was, an expatriate in Belgium, originally from the United States and most recently from Arizona, and here they were, an entire family from Guatemala. In a more humane world, they would never have had to leave Guatemala in search of a safer life. Barring that, they should have been welcomed with open arms into Arizona—or any other border state for that matter—and we could have/should have/would have met in Arizona. Instead, here we were, meeting on another continent.


While I was thankful to meet them, to raise our voices in song, and to be able to wish them a warm welcome to Belgium on a cold, grey, rainy day, my heart also felt heavy by the fear and othering that has become so widespread, commonplace, and acceptable both in the United States and around the world. I often feel so helpless to make any real difference on a grand scale, but I am heartened to share these precious moments being reminded that love is possible and that there is a greater truth in the phrase: we are not so different, you and I.  May more and more people around the world hold this in their hearts and let it guide their actions. May this be so.


Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

Peace. Peace. Peace.

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