Thoughts about Refugee Week compositions

Every year I create work with students for performance during Refugee Week (20-26 June in Australia, with June 20 being World Refugee Day). We’ve created songs, instrumental pieces, music inspired by individual students’ stories of flight and sanctuary, recorded pieces, and live performances. Some of the songwriting has been particularly memorable and can still bring a choked-up feeling to my throat when I think of the sincerity and emotion the children perform them with.

Some of the students I teach have been through unimaginably awful experiences. At the Language School they are learning alongside other newly-arrived students, who may be immigrants or in Australia on temporary visas, relocated here due to their parents’ work. Not everyone is a refugee, but everyone has come from somewhere else and shares the experience of being in a new country, and of leaving another home behind.

One of my first Refugee Week projects was Lingua Franca, in 2001. The range of prior experiences that the students had was summarised beautifully by one Chilean girl, who wrote:

Some people leave their homes and it’s as if it is just light rain. Some other people though, HAVE to leave! As if it is a big and terrible storm.

This poetic comparison, using the weather as a metaphor for human experiences, became a song, Some People:

Some people leave their home in light rain.

Some people leave in a storm

Some people choose when to come or to go.

And some people have no choice at all.

One year, the class teachers and I decided to focus on people’s homes in their countries of origin. First we asked all the students to draw pictures of their homes. This yielded some very vivid images – from skyscrapers and technological advancement (China) to planes dropping bombs on houses and people (Afghanistan). Then we interviewed them about their picture, pointing to different details and asking what they represented. We wrote down every word the students said, and used these words and sentences to create songs.

One five-year-old boy from Sudan drew a picture of a lion and described the way a lion tried to come inside their hut one day! His classmate, a young girl from Denmark, drew a picture of a house with a large love-heart taking up most of the ground floor, and flowers in pots on the window sill. These images, and others from the class, became the following song:

There’s a heart inside my house, with a ribbon that I lost.

There are flowers in the window at the top.

There’s a swing on a branch on a tree,

And good friends live next door.

Lions want to come inside, but the heart will protect me.

This is a song that still brings a lump to my throat – the last line in particular, with “the heart” a metaphor for the protection that adults and family provide for children.

Maps of the heart

In this year’s project, I started by brainstorming “the most important things” with students. I asked them to draw a “map of their heart”, showing all the things they cared about, and giving greater portions of the heart to the most important things, and correspondingly less space to less important things.  I introduced the idea that hearts sometimes get broken, or cracked. If you have lost something important you might have a hole or a gap in your heart, a piece that you have left somewhere else, or with somewhere else. The students (all upper primary students) found this a compelling thing to think about representing.

I found that their responses could be divided into categories about friends, family, small cracks and holes, and the future. Many of them included future plans, hopes and dreams in their hearts. In response to what these “heart maps” revealed, we’ve developed three pieces of music – one about cracks in the heart (the pain of leaving a country, and saying good-bye to people you care about), the importance of your family and friends when you change countries, and the future – all the things they hope to be and become.

Risk and fragility

But this focus on what for many may be quite raw and traumatic experiences is risky. I don’t know what it will reveal, and I need to move the projects forward very gently, and very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if I am too careful, and if my efforts to avoid too much examination of danger and terrifying experiences is ignoring a reality for some students. For example, our song about friends and family is in the relatively peaceful key of G-mixolydian (G major with a flattened 7th), and declares:

I miss my country, it’s far away from here.

But I’m lucky, because my family’s with me,

And I have good friends.

Friends and family

Taking care of me.

We wrote it in one lesson, using the words that had come up in their brainstorm in response to their heart-maps. As we sang it through at the end of the class, one of the Somali students said to his class teacher (who was sitting beside him),

“But I don’t miss my country. It was a bad place, very danger, very sad…” and he mimed shooting a machine gun across the heads of the other children in the class.

“That’s true,” said his teacher immediately. “The things that happened there were very bad, and you don’t miss them. Maybe though, you can think about the place, and the things that happened there, as different. The place itself was not bad, but many bad things happened and you couldn’t stay.”

At this point I asked them what they were talking about, and we discussed this issue with the whole class. Not many students contributed – perhaps because they didn’t have the language, perhaps because we were at the end of the lesson. I wanted to find a way to include that student’s comments and concerns in our song. We wondered if he could perhaps speak at the end of the song (prior to the next piece in the cycle – this project had become a 3-part song cycle). But he didn’t really respond to the suggestion. He was happy to play the instruments in the song, and perhaps didn’t want further scrutiny over his prior experiences. Or perhaps he did. It’s difficult for me to know for sure, and I only see the students once a week.

Ultimately, I believe these creative process are important for the students on several levels. The ownership they feel when they help to create music that they later perform to others is incredibly important to them, and they feel very proud of their efforts. Every step in the composition process takes place in class, so they know exactly how each piece came into being. It is also significant that through writing songs, they get to tell their stories to a larger audience. The challenge for me is making sure the stories we tell are indeed their stories, including the uncomfortable ones… or not.

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