Since arriving in Brussels in the beginning of December 2016, I have been sending inquiries to any and all agencies that I can find who assist immigrants and refugees coming to the city from other countries. I have followed several possible leads but only recently finally happened upon one where I can volunteer and songwriting workshops.
The place is called Fedasil Petit-Château Klein Kasteeltje. It is an asylum center for refugees, who stay there temporarily while they are applying to live in Brussels. After several emails back and forth with different staff at the center, it was agreed that I would visit to observe a poetry workshop this past Monday.
I stood outside in the frigid air (frigid for someone who most recently lived in the Southwest desert, that is) and chatted in English and French with staff and center inhabitants. The volunteer was a woman who was originally from Scotland but who had been living in Brussels for a long time after meeting and marrying a Belgian man.
She told me that she had been volunteering at the center for more than five years and offered poetry workshops every Monday afternoon between 2 and 4pm. She would post long strips of paper onto the brick walls, and people would come by and write phrases inspired by a weekly theme. This past week’s theme was love for Valentine’s Day. I studied each of the four pieces of paper, reading phrases I could understand in French and English, translated from Farsi, Arabic, and other languages foreign and mysteries to me.
Each strip of paper was a work of living art. I could feel the heart and emotion in the words. I could not imagine what it must be like to flee from your home and then be living in a kind of no man’s land at an asylum center in a foreign country.
I had brought my ukulele along, just in case (you never know when things might get musical). In talking with the other volunteer, I described the kind of songwriting I do and suggested that it might even be possible to create a song from the words and phrases posted on the brick wall. She loved the idea, and we talked to the refugees who had joined the melee. They were curious but did not seem prepared to begin singing on the spot. One man, a fellow from Djibouti City, suggested that I might play a song for them. This seemed like a reasonable way to ease them into sharing their own voices.
I took out my ukulele and started playing Tom Waits’ Come on up to the House. By the end, everyone was singing the chorus together, regardless of whether their first language was Arabic, French, or beyond.
As the session drew to a close, it was decided that we would try weaving poetry and music together at the next session. I am both excited and nervous to see what will happen, and I promise to keep you posted!