Welcome to Bethlehem!
Before we launch into the next series of clips and stories about our visit into the Palestinian Deheisheh Refugee Camp, we wanted to take a day to preface this next trip with a few words which we feel are very important to share.
We began planning this project six months before the refugee crisis and immigration issues exploded in the American Media and the mere mention of the word “refugee” or “immigration” became an instant trigger for intensely heated politics, often aggressive words of anger, and immediate division. Witnessing all of this unfold on the political stage and observing the immediately defensive walls that people put up around these topics along with the pain and frustration that they inflamed in those all around us, made it very clear that we would need to be walking a very very fine line throughout this project – a line which circumvented politics and took a quiet, gentle, – and, yes, perhaps slightly naive – path. Our mission with this project is not to make any statements about politics, point any fingers, or entwine or align ourselves with any political parties, policies, or government practices. We merely saw two things – 1) people in need and 2) a way we might in our very small way be able to help them – and so we decided to dive in and do what we can. And so, the Novel Voices Refugee Aid Project is and has always been a project of the heart, not politics. One which seeks out the good work that is being done by good people with many different political views and backgrounds, and tries to bring this work into the eye of the public – in order to bring more awareness, understanding, and ultimately support for that good work.
We wanted to take the time to write this, because in our next visit into the Palestinian Deheisheh Refugee Camp, in what some call the “West Bank” and others call “Palestine,” we walked dead-center into the middle of one of the hottest political fires in the world: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And with a conflict so complex and full of pain, history, and heartbreak as that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we dare not insert ourselves in any way so as to assert anything even remotely close to a political stance or view. We have experienced little glimpses of both sides of the wall that divides these two worlds, and have seen and listened to stories of pain, fear, and loss from individuals that we care for deeply in both of these worlds. And so we understand again that our role here is to take that simple, quiet path and do what little we can by finding the good in the darkness and confusion and choose to highlight it, celebrate it, and do whatever we can to support it. These next posts will celebrate the amazing work being done by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Palestine in the Palestinian Deheisheh Refugee Camp.
On March 8, 2019, we woke up in the darkness before dawn in a farm house just outside of Jerusalem to quickly gather our instruments, teaching materials, cameras, and courage to dive into a day in a location foreign to all of us – the Palestinian Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Our clear and simple plan was to meet our contact from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music at their East Jerusalem branch location, hop into a van, and drive through all the checkpoints into the West Bank/Palestine, and spend the day making music together with the children in the ESNCM’s outreach program in the Dheisheh Camp. Confident in our plan, we flipped on “waze,” stepped on the gas and took off toward Jerusalem, enjoying our “5 minutes early” ETA and combing one more time through our workshop plans for the day; indeed, all was well and according to plan until we came around a corner into a narrow alley – with no exits – and our GPS cheerily informed us that we had arrived to our desired destination. A somewhat panicked reloading of each of our GPS’s in every imaginable map/apple/google/location app ensued, and finally, thankfully yielded a new location mere miles away, and we took off again in search once more of the ESNCM East Jerusalem facility – keeping our fingers crossed this app had a little bit more background knowledge of the East Jerusalem terrain.
When we finally arrived, we were greeted by a man who spoke only three words of English, “Very Good!” and “Welcome!” – and with a handshake, a smile and a “Yalla! Salam!” (“Let’s go! Peace!” in Arabic), we were off. We watched through the windows as the landscape around us changed bit by bit from the well-kept sandstone buildings we had grown accustomed to seeing in Jerusalem, into gradually older, dirtier, and more crowded streets and broken down buildings, until finally we came to a halt in front of a sign with the emblem of the UNHCR next to the words “Dheisheh Camp” – and found ourselves in the location we had planned for and dreamed about visiting for so long. We piled out of the van and were warmly greeted by a man named “Hassan” with whom we had been corresponding for several weeks leading up to our visit.
We thanked our driver and promptly and excitedly fell into line behind Hassan as he led us into a worn-down building, followed the sound of music up two flights of stairs and filed on into a large room filled with 20+ children all playing violins, cellos, ouds, and quanuns together at once. We had arrived! The moment we’d been anticipating for 9 months was finally here! We took a deep collective breath, unpacked our instruments, and dove in…
Our time in the Palestinian Dheisheh Refugee Camp included both the chance to perform for the students of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music’s refugee camp outreach program, as well as listen to these students perform for us. We were blown away by the talent we encountered in the camp (a testament to the quality of teaching being offered by the ESNCM) and immensely enjoyed having the chance to “jam” together with ensembles of violins, cellos, and traditional Arabic instruments. We had a wonderful time teaching them some of our music and then having them teach us some of their traditional Arabic songs – and we ultimately performed everything all together in a final concert for the inhabitants of the Dheisheh Camp at the end of our time together.
In today’s clips, we’d like to share one of our viola/piano/oud/voice jam-sessions (p.s. – The material from this piece is directly quoted in Fernando’s Novel Voices piece! Bonus points to whoever can pick it out on our Novel Voices album!)
Some of the most inspiring, heart-breaking, and fulfilling moments of this project came in our encounters with students who had obvious natural, musical talent paired with strong desires to develop that talent – but with limited or sometimes non-existent means to do so. We encountered these students in both Denmark (with Behnam – whom we posted about on Day 3) and the West Bank/Palestine and were struck as we worked with them by the thought that for these students, each piece of information we offered was more than just information. Each piece of information could actually serve as a tiny crack opening up in a doorway to a new life. WHAT IF – the lessons we offered in making a more beautiful sound on the violin/viola or cueing an ensemble or learning the mechanics of how best to use one’s body while playing an instrument, etc….. WHAT IF those little lessons could actually help raise those students’ level of playing to the point that their playing eventually could become their ticket to a new life? This was a thought-provoking concept that came up for us repeatedly upon each new encounter with a talented child – and one which certainly put practicing bow exercises and morning scales into perspective!
When we talked about it as a team, we all had similar answers to the question of where WE would be if we hadn’t become musicians; for each, it was… “I certainly wouldn’t have been traveling the world. In fact, I probably would never have left Nevada/Bulgaria/Mexico/etc.” WHAT IF… we could give one of our new friends the opportunity to eventually answer that question, too, with a… “I certainly wouldn’t have been traveling the world. In fact, I probably would never have left Dheisheh.”
For this reason, we have kept in touch with several of the students we met and, following the close of our initial phase of this project, we will begin work on both developing distance learning options as well as – through the backing of Project: Music Heals Us – sending teachers and performers back into the camps to continue to work with the students we met.
One of the most emotionally challenging parts of this project has been making new friends in each of the locations we visited and then leaving them at the end of our visits not knowing if/when we would ever be able to see them again due to their life situations. Today’s clip shows a few seconds of one of these “goodbye” moments: a conversation Molly had with our new friend Taleen in which they make a pact to come find each other in the future, just moments before we all waved goodbye.
Taleen is a talented violinist, loves science, dreams of becoming a doctor working at the Dheisheh Health Center, and wants more than anything to see America. She also has kept in touch with us over the past few months, giving us occasional updates letting us know how she’s doing.
Upon our return to Jerusalem from our visit into the Dheisheh Camp in the West Bank/Palestine, we had the opportunity to both interview the director of the Palestinian Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Suheil Khoury, and sneak into a performance by a very unique and inspiring musical group: the “Daughters of Jerusalem” – an all-girl ensemble created and trained in the ESNCM. As you will learn in this clip, this ensemble is unique for many reasons, as it is breaking the trends, expectations, and traditions of more than just the Arabic music world. These girls are changing the culture around them by, as Suheil Khoury says in this clip, “…simply walking as confident women down the street carrying their instruments” – something that a mere ten years ago, was unheard of! We were very moved and inspired by both Suheil’s words and the music of the Daughters of Jerusalem.
A study was done recently by Penn University on the impact of Art on society, and the conclusion (of course!) was that contact with the Arts in any strata of society was shown to improved health, safety, and well-being across the board. Indeed, on even a simple search of “art’s influence in society” in the omniscient Google, you’ll find several similar answers… “Art can influence society by changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences across space and time. Art in this sense is communication. Art allows people from different cultures and different times to communicate with each other via images, sounds and stories. Art is often a vehicle for social change.”
The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the organization with which we had the opportunity to partner in our Palestinian Dheisheh Refugee Camp visit, is proof of these statements. The ESNCM was founded by five Palestinian musicians who wished to change the conflict-filled world around them through simply…. “bringing music into every Palestinian home.” They started their programs by opening their doors to anyone interested in learning to make music, regardless of skill level or socioeconomic status – this meant ex-prisoners, children from refugee camps/supermarkets/auto garages/the streets etc, anyone anywhere in Gaza/West Bank/Palestine who showed interest! They began with a core 40 students, and have grown exponentially over the past 25 years – into an incredible 2000(!) music students throughout 6 different branches. They are changing lives every day, and have offered multiple generations (as we wrote about in Day 40’s “What If” post) tickets to a new life – enriching lives, building communities, and often even sending students to some of the best music schools in the world in Europe and the US. Please enjoy today’s clips in which Suheil Khoury, details ESNCM’s mission, founding, and widespread, persistent, and rapidly expanding work throughout Palestine – as well as several “success stories” of changed lives through their incredible programming.