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Story to Song helps refugees share their experiences, through music

22:05 08/06/2019

An American in Brussels is helping the city's refugees tell their unique stories through songwriting - in the hope of building empathy and understanding.

Marieke Slovin Lewis moved to Brussels to accompany her husband, who is studying the philosophy of technology at the VUB for his PhD. She has a varied career, is classically trained on the piano, has a PhD in sustainability education and worked for 10 years as a park ranger for the US National Park System.

She wanted to take advantage of her sojourn in Belgium to use her talents for good - and so Story to Song was born.

What's the philosophy behind Story to Song?

My focus when I was studying for my PhD was looking at how we can solve the big problem of sustainability by breaking it into its smaller component parts. My belief is that if we begin at the individual level, working with each individual person to create what I call self-sustainability in their own existence, then people will be more available, more empathic, and more able to be stewards of our own and other species. That’s been the focus of my work and that’s where the songwriting that I do comes in.

How did this concept start out?

I contacted all the refugee centres I could find in Brussels, because I wanted to be working with people for whom this method of songwriting might be really meaningful. I think that all people should be given the opportunity to move through the creative process to share and be heard in terms of their personal story by communicating deep emotions. That's especially true for people who feel disenfranchised, with their voices not being heard. I was lucky that I heard back from the Fedasil centre, Le Petit Château, and when I went there, I was introduced to a woman who’s been doing poetry for several years. She was really interested in my method and so we began working together.

What's your approach?

We hung a piece of paper up on the wall and people could come and share a word or a phrase. For people who are learning English or Dutch or French as a second language it was not too intimidating, and also for people who are coming from all different kinds of experiences and who may not feel trusting or safe to share their full story, we could get pieces and we could shape all those different pieces and find a theme, an emotion, a call to action that could be communicated in a powerful chorus and song, which is where my role comes in.

When we write songs at the centre we try to keep the songs simple to make them accessible, but we also have lively debates translating to many different languages so that people can sing in Arabic, Farsi, Dhari etc. As they are sharing all these words and phrases I’m looking for how they’re connected, where the pattern is. And what really powerful universal concept can be shared such that any person around the world can make a connection with a person who has had to flee for their lives - whether or not the person listening to the song has experienced something similar. The song shares a musical connection to bring two different people together.

What's next?

I think of myself as a musical guide in that to really to fix the problems of the world requires beginning with each individual, but also in connecting individuals by building empathy and understanding. If we can each see other people - who we are taught to fear, for whatever reason - as another person who is not entirely different from us, in terms of why and how they fundamentally experience human life, there’s real hope for saving our world and I just do my little bit through songwriting.

Written by Richard Harris