The Migration Songs project took place between January 2017 and the first COVID lockdown in mid-March 2020. Sarah Reader Harris and I offered poetry and songwriting for two hours on Monday afternoons at the Fedasil Arrival Centre. Our sessions were held in an open space, where all voices, languages, and stories were welcome.
The project began in January 2017 when I started volunteering at the Fedasil Petit-Chateau Klein Kasteeltje refugee asylum center. It was on my first visit to the center that a staff person introduced me to another volunteer who had been offering poetry sessions for the residents for several years. This volunteer, Sarah Reader Harris, welcomed the idea of incorporating music into the creative process. We began working together and have continued ever since.
This form of songwriting is not simply a documentation of the events and emotional toll of people’s migration experiences but a profound exchange of life stories, struggles, language, and culture. There is much conflict surrounding immigration around the world, and there is pressure for migrants to let go of their language and customs in order to assimilate into their new home country. We believe that it is through the celebration of our diversity that we come to an understanding of our solidarity and similarity.
We wrote songs in all languages because we have found that the familiarity of hearing and seeing a person’s mother tongue helps bring relief, kinship, and the feeling of being welcomed to a foreign land. Especially in a foreign land where the language and customs are new, it can be soothing to see your language written and to hear it spoken. I also know from experience that it is difficult to truly express yourself in a new language. It is a gesture of solidarity and camaraderie as well. Sarah created a poetry wall with blank pages for people to write upon, as well as poems from many different countries. People have come up to wall, recognized their language, and made personal connections to the words. One man pointed to a poem in his native language and told Sarah that the poem communicated his own experience.
Even with modern technology to video chat, text, and call “home,” the people we met were struggling. They were in foreign land without familiar faces, and they waited, sometimes for several years, without control over their destiny. Giving voice to their experiences in song became a way to create something beautiful and hopeful.
The songs are listed below in linear order. Many are finished, but there are some that are in the beginning stages. Some songs reveal themselves in one session, while others take longer to come into being.
Click on each song for photos, audio, and a description of the creation process.
- Never give up
- The mountain and me
- I’ll meet you there
- Side by Side [We are alive]
- I want a peaceful life
- Zindgi Sakhta (Life is hard)
- Live free [Live in Liberty]
- The sun will come again
- Let’s dance in the rain
- Laugh at life, and Life laughs back
- I am the change [We are the change]
- Break the code [The best is yet to come]
- I am a word
- Free again
- Remember Rose
- The Domes of Damascus [Hebek Habibi, I love you]
- Who you love is who you are
- If only we hope
- Don’t wait, create
- A song for Mohanad [We wish you well]
- There is a day
- Free [Nobody asking me]
- Nataghiar [Let’s change]
- The Pigeon Song
- My lovely, my lovely [Habibi, habibi]
- Soyons unis [Ce n’est que la vie]
- When the whole world is gone
- Just be happy [The meaning of life]
- I could be you, you could be me
- Thank you for coming
- [Shhh] Let the silence speak
- We are all human
- The hand that hurts can also heal
- I want to live
- Yala Yala Yala [Let’s go]
- Feel Free
- Hakuna Matata
- Let me be free [Free like a smile]
- What gives you hope?
- We are the nomads
- You are always here with me
- Give me a chance
- She will walk again
- A wild idea
- When you cross the border
Waiting words: These are words that are still waiting to be shaped into song.
Our work has been highlighted by the House of European History, The Bulletin, Fedasil Klein Kasteeltje and Fedasil Newsbrief, and the Migratie Migration Museum in Brussels, where we have been included in a music vitrine in their permanent exhibit.
In March 2020, we published, “On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration.”
In December 2020, we shared our project with Vincent Hostak and Janice Pugh Wohler, the creators of the podcast, Crossings: The Refugee Experience in America for Episode 9: Songs of Migration in Belgium.