I knew that I was going to be more on the spot at my second visit to the refugee asylum center. As I walked from the metro to the center, I could hear the voice of my inner critic, chatting away in my ear.
What if you aren’t able to come up with a song? What will you do then? They will find out that you are a fraud, a musician without talent.
I listened for a minute. Then I decided that I didn’t think that would happen, and the voice grew silent.
I arrived at the center early (I am always early since I err on the side of caution with public transit), and I chatted with the staff while I waited for the poetry volunteer to arrive. One member of the staff had mentioned that the center hosts special activities for a women’s week in March during women’s history month, and I mentioned that I had offered songwriting workshops at a similar event at my former job in the states. I breathed a sigh of relief when the poetry volunteer arrived, and I walked with her to the area where we would set up for the poetry and music session.
From the outside, the asylum center looks like a square, medieval, brick walled in city, with towers at each of the four corners and an arched entrance in the front center. Once inside, there is an open yard in the central area with covered walkways leading around three of the four walls. It is in a spot along one of these covered walkways where we set up shop. Setting up involves cutting long strips of paper and hanging them up on the brick wall with brown packaging tape. Markers are laid out on a windowsill, and then we wait for people to join in.
From talking with the poetry volunteer, who has been visiting the center for the past five years, it seems there are many regulars to the Monday afternoon poetry sessions. This is already clear from my second visit, where I recognize a few of the people who stop by. People come and go and use the markers to write words or phrases on the sheets of paper. The poetry volunteer begins by writing a short poem on one of the pieces of paper and encouraging the visitors to write along a theme. This past week’s theme seemed to materialize into different ideas about life.
What I found incredible was the thread of hope amidst despair woven from one person’s words to the next. While people were writing, others watching would talk with the staff and volunteers. One person told me that he was one of the sole survivors of 500 people crossing an ocean by boat to get to Europe and a better life. Another person told me he had been living at the asylum center for over a year after traveling alone from Afghanistan.
I watched as the sheets of paper slowly filled with writing and worked with the immigrants to translate abstract ideas from several different languages into English. One fellow explained the literal translation from Arabic to English, and I attempted to recreate the more figurative meaning into English. This was no easy feat, particularly as words and cultural meanings can be quite different from one language to the next, making some ideas very difficult to interpret.
In the end, I looked over all of the words and phrases and chose four that seemed to fit together into a possible chorus that we could sing together.
I wrote these phrases on a new sheet of paper and asked if anyone might like to try singing. One brave soul stepped forward and sang a couple of lines. He was singing in F minor, so I tried playing a couple of chords and singing his melody back to him. People gathered in a circle, and we tried singing through the four lines several times together. I felt instant energy in the group as people began snapping their fingers and clapping. At times, people called out harmonies and repeated individual words.
After singing through the chorus several times, the brave singer translated the first line into Dari and taught it to the group. I suggested that we sing through the English phrases and then chant the Dari phrase at the end.
As I walked toward the metro after leaving the center, I reflected on the afternoon. It was incredible to hear people singing words of hope after experiencing such trauma in their lives, and it gave me perspective and admiration for these lost souls. Their words reminded me that there is a ray of hope in every place, and one must be present to find it. Perhaps, we will help each find sanctuary in a foreign land through music.
Here are the words to our chorus:
In life, there are second chances
You can start again
Never give up (2x)
Life is here and now
Sindgi shans dowam darah (repeat)
Click on this link to listen to our voices together and sing along with us.