A Dancer's Reflections from the Lesbos Refugee Camps


By Livia Vanaver

Greece: March 14-20, 2016

What are the really hard questions? How to conduct the research? When do we step in or step back? How do we create an atmosphere conducive to sharing? How to create the space for people to come forth? 

These were very real questions for me as I began to observe over and over again how I needed to feel a connection in myself in order to connect with one person through their eyes, their voices and really listen to them. How do dance and music connect us from the deepest level?  And first, how do we conduct ourselves and what preparation do we need in order to have the best 'laboratory' and make experiments? How were we actually going to find two or three musicians and/or dancers in these camps? How would we keep communicating with them over the next two to three years as they traveled to find their new homes? This was our mission.

Visiting Kara Tepe, one of the refugee camps, we met with the director and made a plan to return and search for musicians. When we arrived the next day, Clowns Without Borders (a group of six clowns and musicians from Sweden) were about to parade through the entire camp, attracting an audience of all ages for a show in the small amphitheatre. We followed along, schlepping drums, rattles, tambourines, banjo, fiddle, an oud; we were gathering children and families like a ball of cotton candy. Going all around the Kara Tepe like this gave us a clear idea of the situation and how this camp, housing two thousand refugees (mostly women, children and families), was divided up. The children were so happy to join us. The looks on their faces are imprinted on my eyelids. They held our hands or grabbed for the tambourines and drums as we crowded into a small amphitheater. The little girls clustered around and snuggled up to me as we watched Clowns Without Borders perform. We clapped and laughed and swayed, and for a short time we could forget and be transported by the moment of enjoying together. Some of the clowns were also musicians who played Swedish and Klezmer music!

Photo by cari ann shim sham

Photo by cari ann shim sham

When the clown show was over, we took out backpacks filled with small instruments. The drums were already being played by some of the older boys who deftly snapped their fingers before striking the dumbeks in a typical middle eastern style. The kazoos and shaker eggs I had bought before the trip went quickly and soon all the children were humming and rattling. I got the Save the Children Volunteers to help me circle the audience around the musicians. Together we danced in and out of the circle, snaking around, spiral dancing and having fun together. 

All I had left in my backpack was an orange from breakfast and I knew there would be mayhem if I gave that to the little girl who had reached inside and discovered it at the bottom of my backpack.  'Portocali!' She pleaded. It was time to go, and one of the young boys helped us out to the car...and got to play the dumbek one more time.   

We returned the next day and brought our instruments to the amphitheatre.  I had again attracted a group of children who eagerly dipped into my backpack, pulled out all the tambourines and sang so beautifully for me.  Andy went off into the main part of the Kara Tepe to search for someone who played the oud. In about forty-five minutes he returned, saying hurriedly, ”Come on, come on! The action is over there!” I packed up our percussion section and together with the children, followed Andy to a bench in the middle if the camp and just started playing; in minutes we were surrounded by fifty people singing and playing the drums we brought. One woman’s voice stood out from the other side of the crowd and she beckoned for the drum. She played the dumbek and sang beautifully but was too shy to come forward.  

A group of Kurds, who also sang and played percussion, gathered at the bench. We asked if they would meet us the next day. They were waiting for us at Kara Tepe the next day, along with other friends and relatives who were at the camp. They eagerly danced and sang for us in the amphitheater. After this, we returned to the bench. We had brought the oud with us and asked all around the camp if anyone played. This very well put together man with slicked back, curly hair approached us, and motioned to play the oud. He played for a bit and then walked off into the camp. Cari-Ann Shimmers, who is the most unobtrusive photographer/videographer I've ever seen, whispered to me, “Go find him for an interview.” It was almost impossible to translate our interest in him and our wishes to be of help. So I gave him a business card and asked if he would friend me on Facebook so we could keep in touch. He showed me his Facebook page on his phone and it was obvious he was a professional oud player and singer, Hsam Altas. He was hoping to get to Berlin, where his older son lives, and continue his career as a musician/singer. He had his younger son with him. I got him to return to the bench where the music was still happening. He picked up the oud and began to play a taxim (an Arabic styled musical improvisation). He then began to sing and improvise words about what was happening right now....as is customary in many traditions. The crowd was delighted; they clapped and sang along on repeats or lullilooed (a typical Middle Eastern, wonderfully enthusiastic, high pitched sound made by women in which the tip of the tongue moves quickly against the roof of the mouth). Afterwards we invited him to come to a quiet place for an interview.

Video by Cari Ann Shim Sham

In the food tent at Better Days for Moria, the dancing and energy got very intense. Suddenly a short charismatic Iranian man began to dance; he looked like a professional the way he held his body and was so fully present and confident in his movement. It turns out that he actually teaches dances professionally from Pakistan, Afghanistan, to Iran. Would love to get him into the US to teach and share his breadth of knowledge. He is perfect for this project. How can this happen? In the tent we felt different impulses as to when to come in and dance with the others or when to step back so they are encouraged to express themselves and share.

What's the chance that out of six thousand refugees, the exact two musicians whom we had targeted (Kayhan.....in the Moria camp and Hsam Altas in Kara Tepe) showed up at exactly the same time in the Mytilini town square on our last day. Kayhan, who plays the ney, is a beautiful young composer and dreamer. He is quiet and reserved. In fact, when we interviewed him a few days ago, we went down to a third refugee camp called No Borders Kitchen. It was right on the water, closer to Mytilini and very sparse, where Kayhan said it was easier for him to be while he waited. We met him in the food tent at Better Days for Moria. Andy had pulled out his penny whistle in the midst of a dance-and-music jam, attracting a large and enthusiastic crowd. There is nothing like music and dance to bring people to a sense of joy and remembering who they are. “Do you play?” Andy asked. Kayhan's fingering was deft and quick and we knew immediately that we had found one of our potential musicians. But how to communicate our goals in coming here to Lesbos, besides lifting the spirits of hundreds of refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria. How to gain his trust so we could explore this possibility and interview him? Was this indeed a musician we could potentially follow for the next three years as he makes his way to a new home and a new life and develop his unique musicianship and collaborate with him in the future? 


We took Kayhan out for supper down a side street to an old traditional Greek restaurant with delicious food. I was thinking how lucky we were to come here and to have the opportunity to research how dance and music feed our essential beings, how we miraculously found Kayhan, how utterly impossible and absolutely perfect. He is hungry to learn more, and to compose more music. For this moment, he could have a sumptuous meal away from the camps with new friends and colleagues, discuss music, and get hopeful and excited about life again after months of escaping violence and arduous traveling.  He could dream again about composing and now, being lifted up from his admitted tendency towards depression, have hope that he will find a new home where he can do this.  Andy gave him his penny whistle and I gave him our well-traveled Remo djembe, which doubled as a dumbek all these years in Sweden, India and now in Greece. Kayhan will make music with it around the campfire until he has his own hearth who knows where? Andy found him on Facebook and Bill has had daily conversations with him as he waits for the next step. The night we went to No Borders Kitchen, a smaller and quieter camp to which Kayhan said he would be relocating. We found him easily and Bill conducted a wonderful interview with Kayhan as we all gathered under a streetlamp just as the sun was setting.

Hsam Altas friended me on Facebook after our chance meeting in the town square on the last day we were in Greece. His profile is impressive and professional. The first part of our mission was certainly accomplished—to find two musicians or dancers—and now we need to be able to follow them during the next three years. Off to a good start despite the difficulties inherent in the refugee camps