When you cross the border

Two Mondays ago, I met a man named Samba at the refugee center where I volunteer in Brussels, Belgium. He told me he had been in Belgium for a week. My co-volunteer, Sarah, and I had posted a piece of paper on the white door beside our poetry wall as usual. As it was our first visit for the New Year, we had decided to fill the page with the word Welcome in as many languages as we could. While I stood talking with Samba, a resident friend from Iran, his four-year-old daughter, and another resident who was an artist, were all talking with Sarah. The artist drew beautiful calligraphy words of welcome in Arabic and Farsi. The little girl drew colorful images on the page.


It was in part for this reason that I did not end up asking Samba if I could write his story on the paper. I also was so drawn into his story that I think it didn’t even occur to me to stop him mid-sentence and shift the energy and momentum.


He showed me an image of a boat packed with people with coastguard boats on either side. This was how he traveled to Italy from Libya. He told me that there were 85 people on the boat (and to be honest, it looked more like a glorified raft than an actual boat), and everyone survived. From Italy, however, he had seen another boat arrive with only four people on board. Everyone else had died on the voyage from Africa.


At the time, I remember thinking the photo he showed was of the boat he took, but in hindsight I am not sure. I did a little research on the precarious crossing of the Mediterranean from Libya, and I found many images of similar “boats,” as well as images of people washed up on the shore. I read phrases like “refugee crisis” and “Tragedy on the Mediterranean: 1,040 refugees die in 14 days.” The Mediterranean, it turns out, has become a cemetery for people from Africa, so desperate for a better life that they are willing to risk their lives to escape to Europe.


Samba explained that it cost over 2,000euro to get to Europe from Gambia. At every checkpoint, he had to pay money or he would not be allowed to cross the border. He crossed the Sahara desert in a pickup truck—that is 5,000 kilometers—in order to get into Libya “the back way” to avoid being asked for a passport that would show he was from Gambia. Libya, being the last country before Europe, had a lot of money, he explained. This meant they required people entering to have a visa.


Once in Libya, he had to ask around for a way to get to Italy. He didn’t know anyone but was given a man to go and see. He had to stay hidden because if the police found him he would be arrested. He told me he took a vehicle to the riverside in order to make the dangerous crossing from Zuwara instead of Tripoli. Crossing at Zuwara cut the time of the journey in half, four or five hours down from eight to 10.


I don’t where he landed in Italy, just that he survived the journey, which is already an extraordinary stroke of luck (or however you would describe it). He told me the journey was incredibly uncomfortable.


It’s cold. You can’t drink, and you don’t lie down, he said.


Samba spent two years, living in a camp in Italy. He had been told by officials that after two years he would be eligible for papers. They asked him to share his story, his reason for wanting to come to Europe. He told them, and he received a negative. So he left the camp. He was given temporary work permits and sent almost all of the money he made to his family in Gambia. This left nothing extra and no way to save up in order to visit them. Of course, he told me he could not visit them because if he left Europe he would have no way to get back. And after seeing how much better the quality of life is in Europe, he has no desire to ever return to Africa.


The life there is too hard, he said.


Finally, after five years in Italy and working on and off with a lawyer, he decided to leave and try for asylum in Belgium. This required hiding in the toilet of a train at the border crossing from Italy into France and then France into Belgium. The only way he was able to make it was luck (or whatever you might call it) that the police did not check the particular toilet where he was hiding at each crossing.


I struggle with the work luck because if Samba had been born into a first world country, his life might be very different. Had our lives been exchanged, he would have grown up with privileges and never had to risk his life or take such extreme measures for the slim chance of a better existence. So much feels random and also unjust. Sarah and I spoke about his chances for being granted asylum in Belgium as we left the center, and Sarah explained that so much depended on his home country. For example, the situation in Eritrea is so dire that it is “easier” for refugees from this country to be granted asylum at present.


She told me about another refugee who had left Germany because he thought he had received a negative for asylum from the government. He had come to Belgium to seek asylum and been told that he had received a positive for asylum in Germany. He hadn’t known because he had not received the information. Maybe, the police had come to deliver the news and he had hidden (what refugee wouldn’t hide from the police?). After some of the stories I have heard about police telling refugees we have met to “go to hell,” etc. I can understand why they would try to avoid any interactions with them at all costs. One refugee told us about a friend who had run from the police and fallen off a building to his death. Now, he exists only in memory through the photos on this man’s phone.


I have heard many stories over my three years, volunteering at the refugee center. Many are harrowing. Many are similar to Samba’s story. I feel daunted to write a song from any of these tales. How can such emotion be expressed? Do I have the talent it takes to write these stories into song?


I have now spent many hours over the past week and a half, working on a song from Samba’s story. I began by writing down as much of the story and his exact words as I could recall from our meeting. I then tried shaping the story into stanzas to illustrate each stage of the journey: Africa, the crossing of the Mediterranean, Italy, the journey to Belgium. I then tried strumming different chords and singing possible beginning melodies. I prefer to ask the storyteller to sing words from the story because they have the most powerful emotional connection, but I hadn’t asked Samba to sing any of the words because we hadn’t written anything down.


I spent several hours the day before the New Year and stopped, completely frustrated. I was not a songwriter. There was no way I could write this song. I should just give up.


The next morning, however, I woke up with a melodic idea and wrote the chorus before I ate breakfast. Progress.


I continued working, grew frustrated again, and wanted to give up. I listened to artists whose creative work inspired me. I tried picking out different melodies on my ukulele. When I became overwhelmed by my attempts to create clever or poignant lyrics, I returned to the original text.


I tried playing soft. I tried strumming loud and yelling. Part of me wanted to just scream at the inhumanity and frustration I felt over the injustice of this man’s experiences. Why shouldn’t all people be given a chance to live a healthy, safe life anywhere they choose?


At each stage of the songwriting process, I would stop and let things simmer. Then, I would experience a breakthrough, as if the song was revealing the next piece to me bit by bit. My role as the songwriter was to notice.


I also did my best to nudge the song along. I again went back to the text and looked for the components that spoke to me on the deepest emotional level.


Having to pay at every checkpoint

The intensity of the journey across the desert

Having to hide from the police in Libya

The visceral experience in the boat crossing the Mediterranean


Somehow, concentrating the story into these few lines made it possible for me to write two verses and derive a melody. Some parts flowed, while others were a little less fluid in the musical birthing process.


My husband helped. It was his suggestion to delete the word “from” in the original first line of the chorus: From Africa, it’s a long story.


This was a line that had stayed with me from Samba, but every time I tried to sing I would get stuck on the word “from” because it just didn’t feel natural to sing.


The line Africa, it’s a long story suddenly gave a depth and intensity to the song that was very different from my first attempt. It seemed to communicate something beyond Samba and to stretch across the many millions of lives over many hundreds of years that had been shaped by the long, harrowing story of Africa itself. Of course, this also made me feel even more intimidated trying to write a song about the story of Africa.


Of course, I don’t have to write a song about the entire history of Africa. My husband suggested that I try to express the emotion I felt in thinking about the story of Africa as I sang the first lines of the song.



It’s a long story


I spoke the words, slowly and with the pain I felt in my heart. I played very little musical accompaniment and did not begin strumming until the very end of the chorus.


In the verses, I built up in intensity so that by the last couple of lines I was singing loud (for me, at least) and would simultaneously drop from strumming to strum a single chord before shifting back into the chorus. The second and third rounds of chorus were louder and more intense with strumming accompaniment on my ukulele.


I now have two verses and a chorus, which feel pretty good to sing though I am still struggling with remembering one melodic line of the chorus when I sing it after each of the verses. The song itself begins with the chorus. I have tweaked the words in the verses to get closer to the imagery and information I want to express.


For example, the first verse had different possibilities for the phrasing:


I went from Gambia to Senegal to Mali Burkina Faso

Took the back way into Libya to avoid getting caught




Took the back way into Libya so they police couldn’t check my passport


Across the Sahara ‘neath the desert sun in a pickup truck

At every checkpoint you have to pay


Or they won’t let you stay




Or you can’t continue on your way


This last line felt a bit too much like it was creating the image of a whimsical stroll rather than the desperate, dangerous escape from a difficult life, but I didn’t really like the former either. My husband made some suggestions, and then suddenly I came up with the line: Or they turn you away. This felt like it communicated exactly what I wanted to say about the checkpoint-border crossing from one country to the next in Africa.


I still have a ways to go to finish the song. I can either write a third verse of write a Bridge before the final chorus. Creating a Bridge means I can stir things up, melodically, rhythmically, and in the telling of the story. Changing the melody and rhythm is a way to draw the listener’s attention back to the song if they were getting lulled into distraction or any complacence by the repetition of the verse melody and chorus melody and rhythm. It is also an opportunity to share some of the “so what” messages of the song and the last portion of the journey, complete with the notion that there is no ending as yet to this person’s story. You can do this by beginning slowly and building up the tension through the combination of words, melody, and rhythm until you reach a kind of musical boiling point before offering some relief to the listener by returning to the chorus and the first note of the scale.


One way I could end the song and simultaneously communicate the idea that the ending has not yet arrived and the storyteller has little control over whether or not he is able to stay in Belgium would be to end on a note that is not melodically easy to listen to. Since the song is written in the key of Dm, this means that I would not end on a Dm chord or note in that chord.


Just as I may never know the ending of this story, I have as yet to find an ending to the song, and the song has not yet revealed a melodic ending to me.


Stay tuned for more on Samba’s song, “When you cross the border.”

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