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I Am Only What You Are
An Interview with Moira Smiley for World Refugee Day

“My world was blown open in summer 2016 while volunteering at Calais Jungle refugee camp in France. I woke to culture and language completely beyond my understanding, and also the simple power of humans making beauty together – from nothing” – Moira Smiley

Today is World Refugee Day, an opportunity to support and help generate attention for the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes. Every day thousands of families join the growing number of displaced persons now totalling more than 65 million people- that’s almost one in every hundred of the global population.

Recently we connected with singer/ composer Moira Smiley to talk about the issue of refugees, as well as her latest album which was shaped by time spent in the Calais Jungle refugee camp. Her song “REFUGEE” is a beautifully compelling call to restore humanity to an issue so often clouded by politics and fear. Of the song, Moira says “We are all much closer to being refugees than we want to imagine. Realizing this may remind us of our humanity – especially those of us who have relatively plenty. Lately, ‘REFUGEE’ is the only song I feel like singing.”

Here Moira takes Come To  Life through her experiences in refugee camps as part of the Expressive Arts Refuge team, as well as the writing of the album, and the lessons she learned along the way.

Come To Life (CTL):Your song “REFUGEE” deals with a topic that has been making headlines recently. Would you be able to tell us how you came to write “REFUGEE”?

MOIRA SMILEY (MS):Two avenues led me to this song. First, there are so many songs – from across the centuries – about the grief and hope of displaced people.  If you love old music, you meet the exiled, the immigrant, the seeker, and those left behind. You find yourself identifying strongly with these stories in history.  And second, I found myself feeling more and more paralyzed by news reports of today’s refugee crisis. I wanted to understand it in a more intimate way, so I took the opportunity to volunteer in the Calais ‘Jungle’ Refugee Camp.

CTL: What brought you to these camps?

MS: In 2016 I began working with refugees through Expressive Arts Refuge, a small, California-based organization that sends a team to refugee camps – so far, to Europe and the Middle East – to bring needed supplies, and teach music, movement and language. Expressive Arts Refuge (EAR) gave me the opportunity to utilize my musical and teaching skills to help and to learn within the refugee camps.

CTL: Do you know the history of these camps?

MS: Each refugee camp in the world has a unique history, and the worldwide refugee crisis (what Amnesty International calls the worst we’ve seen since WWII) has extraordinarily complex origins. The European camps that I visited in the past two years are relatively new compared to camps for Palestinian refugees, and refugees in Eastern Africa.  The Calais ‘Jungle’ camp is an unofficial refugee camp – not run by the UN, or government agencies. It began to grow in the 1990s, and grew exponentially to 8,000 to 10,000 refugees from 2014-2016. I spent most of my time in the improvised ‘tent city’ part of it. The whole camp was closed and demolished shortly after I was there in 2016. In summer, 2017 I went with EAR to the Greek camp of Skaramagas, near Athens.  Since 2016, it’s an official camp with electricity, water and isoboxes for housing. When I was there, there were several powerful NGOs there providing services, schooling, etc.

CTL: What was your experience being in these environments?

MS: The two camps I visited were vastly different from one another.  I entered the Calais ‘Jungle’ with fears for my physical safety, and discovered incredible humanity and camaraderie, though the environment was improvised, flimsy ‘housing’ in the sand, scarce sanitation and a sense of danger at night.  I entered Skaramagas with a strong determination to connect to the more traumatized kids, and bring something bright, playful and structured into the limbo of their sterile world of concrete and heat.  

CTL: What role does art and music play in the refugee camps that you visited?

MS: Creating bright, colorful, hopeful public space is an essential gift that NGOs and volunteer organization bring to the various tough landscapes of the refugee camps.  Whether it’s a mural, or tiny colorful bits of paper or cloth hung across a space or fake flowers in a refugee-run business, it’s about humanity. It speaks especially to the children there, and asserts that all people matter and have voice.  The EAR team offered music classes in NGO spaces, refugee school spaces and organized concerts and collaborations in the public gathering spots in the camps. I recorded young rappers rapping in Arabic to pre-recorded tracks so they could post their songs online.  

CTL: In documenting your experience in these camps  you wrote about “culture and language beyond [your] understanding.” Could you elaborate on this?

MS: Even though I’m a constantly traveling, curious American with privilege and resources, I was shocked to understand just how narrow my scope was.  The vastness multicultural reality of the modern, ‘Arab’ world, and the mix of ancient and modern in northern and eastern Africa were so far beyond what I realized were my very limited, English-language sources of information.

CTL: You also mentioned the “unbelievable journeys” that people had been on to arrive in the camp. Is there one journey in particular that comes to mind that you could share with us?

MS: There were so many.  We befriended a group of young Sudanese men in Calais who had crossed the Sahara, come into the clutches of smugglers in Libya, crossed the Mediterranean by boat – one of them losing his grandmother as he landed in Europe.  More smugglers, police attacks in Italy, and finally arrival by foot to northern France. A Syrian woman stopped to talk with us because we’d taught her daughter for a week in the refugee-run ‘Hope School’. After her husband was killed, and she saw the grisly sight of a head (beheaded by ISIS) on a fence on her street, she took her children and through a series of buses and paying border ‘fees’, she arrived in Turkey, then to the island refugee camp/processing center of Lesvos, and finally to Skaramagas.  

CTL: “REFUGEE” is an incredible song dealing with concepts that seem quite basic on the surface (me vs you, bring vs give, harm vs shelter, belonging vs longing) but which hold an incredible amount of depth and intricacy. Is there a reason for the stark dualities that feature in “REFUGEE”?

MS: Empathy is the urgent message of ‘REFUGEE’. It tumbled out of me in response to the paralyzing complexity of this global crisis because this loss of control in the lives of people who’ve become refugees could very easily happen to any of us. We humans hold within us this duality of belonging and not belonging. Our empathy helps us understand this absolute truth.

CTL: The song does a great job of humanizing what is often a highly politicised, controversial topic. What were your motives here?

MS: When it’s all said and done, our humanity is all we have.  When we lose that empathy and humanity, we are lost. We need to constantly revisit and illuminate the beauty, the shadows, the resilience and shared worth of our humanness.

CTL: The cover pictures for “REFUGEE” mainly feature hands and feet. Is there a reason for this?

MS: Being an asylum seeker, a refugee, a person outside the protective power of law often comes with hiding until it is safe to be seen.  Most of the refugees I met did not want their pictures taken. On the flip side of this, I wanted the visuals for ‘REFUGEE’ to convey that EVERYONE, ANYWHERE could be a refugee, so I kept them mostly mysterious as to race and age, and even ambiguous in gender.  Only at the end of the official ‘REFUGEE’ video, made by Peter Hastings, are we finally able to connect with their eyes.

CTL: You’ve mentioned that you have Syrian-Lebanese roots. Were these roots a motivating factor when it came to visiting the camps and writing this song?

MS: I do!  Imagining my Syrian-Lebanese great-grandfather meeting my Irish great-grandmother was one of my favorite daydreams as a kid.  I understood it even then how very New York City/American a story it was. The family heirlooms of a few persian rugs and brass things treasured in our New England farmhouse were a sign that the world was incredibly large and mysterious.  My love of Eastern European music is so much due to the Middle Eastern scales and rhythms in it. I’ve only scratched the surface but sharing meals, music and stories with the family of our newfound Syrian friend Hussam made me so happy – and thirsty for more exploration of Syrian and Lebanese music and culture!

CTL: What was the most impactful part of your time spent in these camps?

MS: The warmth, embrace and utter generosity of our new refugee friends was absolutely life-changing.

CTL: On the UN’s Refugee Day web page it is written that “World Refugee Day also marks a key moment for the public to show support for families forced to flee.” In your experience, what are ways that the public can show support for refugees?

MS: There are refugees coming into many communities – large and small.  Look out for small organizations doing really good work in your own town.  And the larger organizations like UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders, A Drop In The Ocean, Danish Refugee Council are incredibly important, and need our support too.

CTL: You recently released your latest album Unzip the Horizon which features “REFUGEE.” You write that the “lonesome freedom” of living a nomadic life on tour was the catalyst for this album, could you speak to this a bit here?

MS: I loved the lightness of a life without many belongings- and rich with music and people.  It can be hard to pull away from a ‘survival’ mentality of making a living from out-of-the-mainstream music.  Very hard work, thoughtful communication and grit are necessary to grow your independent artist life. But…my recent nomadic years taught me to give that little extra time and worth to practice, listening, writing, listening, volunteering, reading…listening.  I didn’t throw this album together – I took time with it, let the vulnerable lyrics mature, let my idiosyncratic voice draw a world around itself.

CTL: What’s next for you in 2018?

MS: I’m preparing for my Carnegie Hall debut!  Ha! Seems like a dream still, but my music will be performed by choirs from around the world in Carnegie Hall next year.  I’m also leading what looks like 10,000 people connected virtually in 6 California cities in a ‘Big Sing’ event this July 21st.  I’m also having a beautiful ‘Unzip The Horizon’ album release event with films, guest artists and other surprises in Los Angeles July 21st.  Other than that, I’ll be touring the U.S., Canada and Europe in various musical incarnations and writing several new commissions – including a Vonnegut Requiem, and a piece for 500 musicians to celebrate the International Day Of The Girl with.

CTL: Is there anything else you’d like to mention while you’ve got the floor?

MS: Listen out and look out for people doing good things beyond your comfort zone – not just on your device, but in real time!  Most of us enact change on the smallest levels. If everyone did a little of that…wow!

CTL: Where can people find you, follow you, and listen to your music?

MS: I’m on all the usual suspects for online listening/watching.  Keep track of my new videos by subscribing to YouTube.com/moiraVOCO.  Find my new ‘Moira Smiley’ artist page on Facebook – I’m starting out fresh there, and would love your support! My website, moirasmiley.com has ways to get YOU singing, my tour dates and other goodies…and I send a few newsletters a year by email if you want to get exclusive goodies, and know when I’m near you giving concerts and workshops.  


Come to Life would like to thank Fish out of Sea for providing us with the photographs used in this article. Fish out of Sea is a non profit that aims to bring photography and self expression to those who need it most by providing people in refugee camps with disposable cameras and letting them capture their reality. You can find out more about Fish out of Sea by heading to their website.