I will never forget our last night, when there was a triple language banner at our table [after the Begegnungschor concert]. Each person knew one language – at the most two – out of the three languages spoken: English, German, and Farsi. Yet we managed to struggle through and talk authentically because we all deeply cared what the others had to say. Kathryn Goldberg BMC’18
Among the Syrians, I discovered a surprising degree of diversity—not just Muslims, but Druze and Christians; not just Arabic-speakers but Kurdish-speakers; a range of ages, from students younger than I am to people their early thirties; people who were trained social workers and musicians, and people who’d never been able to attend school. Where I live, in Washington, DC, immigrants and expatriates are much more homogenous, usually government representatives or high-level employees of the World Bank and NGOs. Seeing such variety in such a small group of people was incredible—though also very sad, as it demonstrates the extent to which the war has affected the Syrian people. – Isabel Gross HC’17
Before the trip, I was nervous that they would think us intrusive, when instead they welcomed us with open arms. Also, the refugees were not all Syrian [as we had expected from the choir’s website] and not all of them spoke Arabic [some spoke Farsi or Kurdish]. They were much more diverse than I had first imagined. It helped break down the stereotype of the “stupid, poor refugee.” Those individuals were talented and amazing! Everyone was really interested in American politics, and…it felt like they were expecting us to all be Trump supporters. [On the other hand,] I felt an unusual amount of pressure to not be the “loud American” in most situations. Sometimes I was concerned that they’d look down on us for that – I think it was the first time I felt like I really truly did not fit into the environment around me. – Liz Heaton HC’18
One thing I was surprised about was how excited everyone was to meet us. All the choirs were so happy when we showed up. I definitely didn’t expect them to be that happy to sing with a bunch of Americans. I think a lot of the people we met were initially very worried when they learned we were American. It seemed like they were afraid we would be loud and obnoxious. Their worries were probably legitimized by the size of our group which naturally led us to always be in the way. I think once we talk with them some and they realized we didn’t support Trump, it got more comfortable. – Nathan Merrill HC’20
I think what really caught me by surprise was that there tended not to be any [negative] assumptions [toward me as an American]. I expected a lot more disdain for Americans, but even strangers on the subway didn't seem to react that way (as far as I could tell). Most, in fact, were friendly, and often offered help when we seemed lost. – Mason Emmert HC’17
I grew up in a [Filipino] culture where Middle Eastern people were ridiculed….and perceived as terrorists…But then I met the Syrians and realized their humanness. One in particular didn’t speak English and we needed another member to translate for us; but it was still a great conversation because I found out about the refugee’s dangerous journey, and his aspirations to become a really skilled tailor. – Alex Bernas HC’19
I was surprised by how many of us assumed that Americans were disliked. Why? A stereotype of a different kind. - Tom Sternberg HC’17
Due to the timing of this trip, several people I met in restaurants or in choirs have immediately mentioned Donald Trump. Many people on the trip have jokingly complained that they hoped to escape United States politics by going to Germany, and yet they couldn’t, as Trump appeared on the front page of every newspaper, and even in the Golem exhibit at the Jewish Museum. – Kathryn Goldberg BMC’18
I was surprised by the assumptions that were not made [about us as Americans]. I had been worried to travel outside of the US and interacting with Syrian refugees since the Trump election, but that worrying was in vain, because while some were interested in my thoughts regarding our president-elect, they never assumed that I voted on way or the other. – Molly Biddle HC’20
The diversity of the refugees we encountered was striking, although not entirely unexpected. The minimal accommodations (including poor heating) in a country that has assisted and welcomed refuges more than most was concerning. I was reminded of how many overqualified people take lo-level jobs, and need to overcome the language and culture barriers and prejudices to do so. – Rachel Brodie HC’19
Singing our Arabic pieces at the refugee center was an intensely emotional experience because these people who had been so abruptly displaced from their homes – and many of whom didn’t have a home anymore - started singing along with us. To be able to share in that part of their identity and try to connect with them was really unbelievable. Also, observing the other choirs’ styles and ways of rehearsing really interested me because we were also different but came together so seamlessly. – Clara Swartzentruber BMC’20
One of my favorite moments of the trip was during our performance in the refugee camp. We were performing a mash-up of sorts -- first a German song, then a Syrian one, then both at the same time -- and as our violinist began to play the Syrian melody, everyone perked up. One of the men a few rows back immediately recognized it and began to sing along under his breath. By the time our choir sang the words, we had nearly half the audience singing as well. The song finished to raucous applause, and I could see the delight (in the children's faces especially) that this group of American singers knew a song that they loved. – Emily Drummond BMC’17
It sounds cliché to say that music bridges boundaries….that “people who sing together cannot hat each other”…..but it’s true. It’s a voluntary, joyful activity that remains one of the best and most versatile languages in the world. A good drum beat strikes German, Syrian, and American [ears] as equally exciting, regardless of language, history, experience. “Warum?” [the Brahms piece we sang, translated “Why?” At the site of the recent [Christmas market] attack, there was a sign that said “Warum?” in the snow, among the flowers and candles. Suddenly, the question was real, not intellectual. It meant more to sing it, knowing that people were thinking the same thing. [we shared this coincidence with our audiences]– Tom Sternberg HC’17
The shared music was the catalyst for forming relationships with members of the other choirs. The Arabic songs in particular gave me a better understanding of the culture and a place to begin a conversation. [Our Arabic songs] were in the form of “call and response.” It was not only wonderful to listen to native Arabic speakers sing the solo parts but I felt closer to the community due to this conversational performance technique. – Molly Biddle HC’20
Our performance of “Vogelgesang” with the Begegnungschor struck me because Arabic-speaking audience members would sing along to “Ya teera tiri” while German audience members sant to the Mahler. Both communities present thus had a shared moment of enjoying their own folk music while together. – Anna Swartzentruber BMC’18
I had SO MUCH FUN playing with the other musicians in the Begegnungschor, and they taught me a lot about their culture and beliefs through the music, by talking about the scenarios in which music is played, as well as specific rhetorical and musical techniques. It also allowed us to take a break from talking, which was refreshing—speaking pidgin German (me) and broken English (them) is very exhausting. - Isabel Gross HC'17
Our shared repertoire was a lot more fun with the enthusiasm of the Begegnungschor. I realized that this performance was not about singing the right notes, but rather it was about connecting with people and enjoying the present moment. The Begegnungschor got on stage and had fun and were themselves, which is beautiful. - Bola Orignuwa HC’19
When singing [the Syrian song] “Nassam” in the restaurant for the final time, I ended up next to one of the refugee members I hadn’t had a chance to talk to before. A few times during the song he threw me a thumbs up. I’d never felt more connect than in that moment when the work with Hanna Khuri [learning Arabic back at Bryn Mawr] and our visit to the refugee center [for the concert] led to that simple exchange]. – Heidi Coleman HC’20
I was pleasantly surprised by how much the audience enjoyed the Arabic pieces. Even the distractible kids in the front row seemed so happy when we started singing the Arabic portion of “Vogelgesang.” That was a really cool moment. - Mason Emmert HC’17
During the last performance at the refugee center, as soon as we started to sing our Syrian repertoire, you could see faces light up. The whole room came alive. I guess it’s not very common for foreigners to express interest and empathy towards Syrian culture and their status in Germany…..I didn’t realize that our performance could evoke such emotional reactions, which showed us how dear to them these songs were. – Julia Lin BMC’17
I was initially frustrated when drilling the [Arabic] pronunciation into muscle memory [back at Haverford before the trip], but the performance just completely shifted my perception. The pieces [were no longer] tedious drills. They are pieces of home that the refugees took with them to an unfamiliar land. – Alex Bernas HC’19
Singing the Syrian pieces as a Lebanese-American myself helped me establish a personal connection with a side of my heritage that I’ve never exactly know how to acknowledge before. Singing each piece was an opportunity for us to tell a story and to open our hearts up to many people. – Veronica Walton BMC’19
There was on particular special moment at dinner with the International Choir. Some people had some very limited English but we managed to ask them what their favorite songs were. They brought out their songbook and we started singing together. Nobody really needed to understand the words we were saying in order to feel the happiness and friendship present in that moment. – Liz Heaton HC’18
Sometimes because of the language barrier it was hard to communicate; but you don’t feel that when you are singing. You’re all speaking the same language, singing the same tune, So it really is an equalizing opportunity. – Iman Qazi BMC’19
Our first experience with the International Choir was something really special. Coming into a room lit only with candles, and everyone being so happy and glad to see you, and then to sing and eat together, and then just leave, was incredibly sad but also such a reverent and special experience. – Iman Qazi BMC’19
The refugee situation:
The refugees long for their own culture so hungrily while they are seeking asylum… music is symbolic of both their triumphs and struggles of identity. – Veronica Walton BMC’19
Before this trip, I had not thought a lot about the European refugee crisis. I had mostly been thinking about the immigration problems in the US. I think learning more about the refugee crisis and politics in general and Germany allowed me to find a global context for events and trends in the US. – Nathan Merrill HC’20
This experience really brought into life the actuality of the refugees lives. Reading and watching the news erases individual experiences that you can only start to understand even a little bit, by actually hearing about and seeing their experiences first-hand. – Iman Qazi BMC’19
Singing in the refugee camp was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I remember standing in the courtyard of Berlin's old city hall, and hearing the sounds of life coming from every window -- babies crying, children playing, people chatting -- like someone had squeezed an entire city into one building. As we sang an Arabic song in the entrance hall, people drifted toward us and sang along. We weren't just performing for them -- we were joining them, learning their music, seeing how they lived. I can imagine that refugees spend a lot of time learning how others live and trying to assimilate, so it felt appropriate that we were doing the same for them. – Emily Drummond BMC’17
Seeing the building where the refugees lived and coming face-to-face with the reality of the situation really personalized the crisis for me. You can hear all you want on the radio about the Syrian crisis, but seeing a woman washing dishes in a tiny [common] bathroom sink or hearing a young man matter-of-factly report about his trip to Germany in a tiny boat really struck me. – Clara Swartzentruber BMC’20
Hearing personal stories from refugees really gave me a new perspective. For example, one man was very close to finishing his degree in Syria but left to avoid the draft and now has to become proficient in German before finishing his degree. Another man has owned a small business for years back at home and had to drop it all and try to study engineering in Germany. Kathryn Goldberg BMC’18
I have begun to understand that so many of the refugees don’t even know where they are headed; to them, an uncertain future is preferable to any future they can imagine in their own country – Molly Biddle HC’20
I didn’t realize how boring it is to be a refugee. I’m restless after four weeks of winter vacation. I can’t imagine how hard it must be not to be allowed to work, to have limited media that you understand and limited ability to participate in cultural institutions. I knew that the linguistic barrier was hard for refugees to surmount, even with classes, but learning about the diversity of the refugees helped reinforce this for me—German must be even harder if you had to learn Arabic and English first, and can’t communicate in your native Kurdish. I also wonder if the linguistic divide impacts the extent to which immigrants can form expat communities in Germany. If everyone speaks Arabic, is it isolating to speak Farsi? - Isabel Gross HC’17
See where the refugees were staying [in the crowded conditions of the re-purposed city hall where we performed] was something that will take longer [for me] to process and realize that reality of their situation. – Melody Gray BMC’20
I didn't really understand what it meant for a country to take in refugees. What I thought was that it was simply the right thing to do. What I learned was that it clearly can be very taxing on a community, but in going to the refugee camp, I also realized more than I had how extremely important it is for developed countries to be welcoming to refugees. - Mason Emmert HC’17
[I learned] there is an economic reason for Germany taking in refugees that goes beyond [the need for reparations] for Nazism. Germany actually needs the migrants to balance the population demographic and have a younger population. But at the same time, there are still Germans who want to keep the migrants out because of racism. The refugees are varied. There are some who live in a center and some who already live in a nice apartment. I also didn’t expect the security to be so tight in the performance venue. – Alex Bernas HC’19
Many people, especially Americans, cannot say they've ever been to a refugee camp, or even met a refugee, yet they debate the refugee crisis as if they're fully informed. I was one of them, conceptualizing refugees as a faceless mass of people fleeing from destruction. Meeting actual refugees -- and eating with them, singing with them -- made me realize how nuanced the situation is. Refugees are human beings, with hopes and fears, family members, jobs, degrees, and hobbies. Many of them speak three or four languages. They leave for a variety of reasons -- I met one man who was a journalist, fleeing potential violence because of his career, and I met another who was a pacifist, fleeing to escape the draft. Refugees are as multifaceted as the countries they seek asylum in, and singing with the Begegnungschor allowed me to see past the media representation of the refugee crisis and connect with Syrian Germans on a personal, human level through music. – Emily Drummond BMC’17
I really cannot get over the number of voices that city [Berlin] holds. If walls could talk….[re the Berlin Wall we visited]. There were so many diverse groups of people – Holocaust survivors and [their] ghosts, East versus West Berliners, refugees and their multitude of languages…. Everyone had a unique perspective on what the city meant to them. I felt this most at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, containing glimpses of every kind of ghost between the stones. – Liz Heaton HC’18
I think it’s hard to articulate the depth and layers of emotion felt on this trip… learning about Berlin’s history to experiencing its current history being made with the refugees. It was really awe-inspiring, and sad, and exciting, and confusing, and a whole lot of other emotions that I still don’t know how to describe. – Iman Qazi BMC’19
Berlin is home to so much pain and political strife, from the memories of the Holocaust, to the remnants of a wall that divided and terrorized a community, to the hundreds of thousands of relocated Syrians looking for a new life. If there's one place to learn how to be a responsible, educated, compassionate citizen, it's there. On this tour, we were fortunate to learn from more than just the museums -- we learned from Berliners, college students and community members and refugees alike. – Emily Drummond BMC’17
Questions for tour leader Prof. Tom Lloyd from Haverford's Rebecca Raber (January 25, 2017):
1) I know you've mentioned that the focus of the tour was on collaborating with local German musicians. Why? And how did this go?
The focus of the 8 Chamber Singers international tours I've led since 1996 has always been on collaborations with local choirs. Rather than traveling from town to town spending all day on a bus and singing by ourselves for people without significant interaction (as with more typical college choir tours), we stay primarily in one major metropolitan area where we can arrange to rehearse, perform, and socialize with singers from local academic and community choirs. Singing together provides a wonderful way to have genuine interaction with people in an unfamiliar culture even in a very short period of time. Students always end up staying in contact over social media with people they sang with during the tour. A recent article by Jesse Singal in the "Science of Us" column of New York Magazine discusses scientific research into the idea that interpersonal contact is an effective way to overcome prejudice and social division.
2) What was the best or most surprising part of the trip for you?
Even with all the advance communication by email and phone over a year or more in planning the collaborations, you never really know how your first meeting with a host choir is going to go until you actually come together for the first time. Even though I've seen the magic happen so many times now, it takes a certain amount of faith to believe that when two groups of people come together for the first time to make music together, anxiety will yield to delight, and gratitude for the gift of being able to share music with someone from a wholly different culture than you're familiar with.
3) Did you learn anything while abroad that has changed how you plan to teach or conduct the choir going forward?
I always learn more how the music really "goes" in an unfamiliar style - the notes on the page tell you only so much, and much of the rest of the world learns music from oral tradition rather than notation. I gained a more specific sense of aspects WWII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War from the many deeply thoughtful museums and monuments created by Germans in coming to terms with their recent past. I also gained a limited but more personal first hand experience of the life of Middle-Eastern refugees in Germany through conversations, singing, and visiting the city hall now serving as a refugee camp.
4) What was your biggest takeaway from this whole experience?
Renewed faith in the belief that it is more difficult to hate a person or their culture after you have shared singing with them. By the end of our trip, our motto was "Singen, nicht hassen." (= Let's sing, not hate.) This can seem trivial and naïve on the surface, but it is difficult to hold on to the prejudices nurtured by political opportunism when you have actually spent some time with actual people in the class being targeted. Music just makes it a little easier for us to overcome the natural inhibitions that often keep us from taking that step.
5) How did you feel the students conducted themselves on the trip? Were you surprised or especially pleased by any of the interactions that you witnessed?
Our local tour manager, Jessica Eucker of AIFS, said afterwards that her colleagues were amazed at how problem-free our group was compared to the many others they have worked with. There is always some friction when you spend so much time together, but for the most part our students carried their bi-co spirit of mutual support and respect with them, and knew how to have lots of fun without losing control.
6) You packed in a lot of sightseeing amongst your busy itinerary; what was your favorite or most moving site visited and why?
The Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind with its haunting interior, the Holocaust Memorial with its blocks of naked stone creating a sense of the immensity of loss, and the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall - seeming small and strange up close, but the fear and ignorance from which it came deeply disturbing and hard to grasp.
7) Is there anything I didn't ask that you think I need to know?
It was hard to avoid intense awareness of the political situation in the US while we were there (and it was on the minds of everyone we encountered) - we were there during the last days of the previous administration, and yet already, only days after our return, the very people we sang and shared meals with have had the doors of our country shut in their faces, even those who risked their lives supporting our troops. This gives us all a feeling of deep shame, but at the same time resolve that this blind prejudice and hatred must not be allowed to stand.