As I write this, I am sitting in my living room in lockdown during the Covid-19 crisis. It seems strange that five weeks ago I was dancing with refugee children and their families in northern France. Life has changed so dramatically since then, but it is important that in our own upheaval, we don’t forget these precious lives.
I had been looking at ways to help the refugee crisis for a while, but it was difficult to find the best way in. It was Naomi Cook (ex-assistant director of Springs, colleague and dear friend) who first told me about Project Play. Project Play “provides safe spaces and the opportunity to play to displaced children across Northern France. [They] believe in the power of play as the best possible means to mitigate the impact of trauma and develop the skills for resilience.” Naomi had a contact at Project Play and they invited us over to do some dance workshops with the children over a week.
We led our workshops in two accommodation centres for refugees. These centres are a strange place of limbo where families are waiting for their asylum to be approved. The centres are incredibly basic and the families are very restricted – they cannot cook for themselves, the children cannot go to school and their parents cannot work. The overall atmosphere was one of boredom and being trapped. Despite this, the children were pure joy. In many ways, they were very similar to the children I teach in the UK; they laughed at the same things, they wiggled in the same way and they had the usual minor scuffles children often have with each other. Yet their lives were also completely different. These families have been through serious trauma, with many of them having lived outside in the refugee camps in appalling conditions.
Things change all the time at the centres with new evictions from outdoor camps and people being shifted around from one place to another, therefore it was important to be flexible with our ideas and plans. We shared a whole range of dance styles and themes ranging from baby ballet to Aladdin, from street dance to Don Quixote. We taught in a mixture of French and English, but one of the great things about dance is that it is a universal language, so everybody could take part whatever their mother tongue. We stretched and we jiggled, we leapt and we boogied. It was a privilege to bring some fun and exuberance into their days. We even had one of the dads join in- he had some serious moves!
The week culminated in a mini show for the parents and centre managers to watch. One of my highlights of the week was when we brought out the costumes – shrieks of pure delight and beaming smiles as we tried on an array of glittery dresses and jazzy trousers. The performance was simple and quite chaotic, but so very special. It gave each of the children a chance to shine and have their moment. It ended in a dance party with colourful streamers, singing and games.
When I left for France, I didn’t really know what to expect from the week. However, at the fear of sounding cheesy, I came back changed and challenged. As I crossed the border back to the UK in my cosy Eurostar seat, cup of tea in hand, I realised how easy my life actually is. It was so simple for me to show my passport and freely enter into the UK to return to my comfortable life. I did not have to pay huge amounts of money for a people smuggler to help me escape a desperate situation. I did not have to travel across the sea on a treacherous journey, or be squashed into the back of a lorry. Working with the children also made the refugee crisis much more of a reality. Previously when I saw photos in the media, the people seemed so far removed - I forgot that they were real people with real lives, who have stories to share. When I see photos now, I will always think of the children I met, and remember their names.
As we spend more time at home over the coming weeks navigating our way through this new way of living, please remember to pray for these refugee families who don’t have a cosy home for self-isolation, or a plethora of online activities at their fingertips. Their lives are precious and valuable, and we must never forget them.
You can find out more about the incredible work Project Play are doing here - http://project-play.org/