Music in the Community at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) teamed up with the University of Athens to bring a performance of The Tin Forest to refugee children in Attica, Greece.

Adapted from a book by Helen Ward, The Tin forest is a statement of belief in the power of locals to bring about positive change in their community, told through the simple story of an old man living in a place 'near nowhere and close to forgotten' who builds a forest from junk.

The musical version of the story was created and composed by Dee Isaacs, Programme Director of the BMus (Hons) programme at ECA and leader of our award-winning work in Music in the Community.

As with the first performance of The Tin Forest in June 2015, which involved 150 children in a school in West Africa, the project saw a group of students from ECA join Dee to work with musicians, other community music students and children.

Music students travel to refugee camps in Greece for community music project
Image courtesy of Kirsty Renton

""To me, it was about connecting with refugee children on a human level using our musical skills and experience in the community, and giving them space to express themselves creatively and playfully.""

Sarah Gross, Music – BMus (Hons)

2016 trip to Athens

The team of staff and students from Reid School of Music travelled to Athens in July 2016 to participate in the community music project with students from the University of Athens in a refugee camp.

Among the students who participated were Kirsty Renton and Sarah Gross. Both were students on the Music – BMus (Hons) programme. They reported on their experience…

Kirsty: Before we left I really had no idea what to expect. I had travelled with Dee [Isaacs] to Gambia in December to participate in running similar workshops with a school, but the media coverage of the refugee crisis in mainland Europe led to many doubts, concerns and worries. Not only over what we might discover within the camps and the challenges associated with working with children suffering from stress and trauma, but also how we would react when faced with such a difficult situation.

By the end of our first workshop, I was blown away. We found a group of welcoming, gracious and proud people who made me feel comfortable and at ease. The children were lively, chatty and raring to go, excited at the prospect of exploring our story. We recreated jungle sounds with instruments, decorated a giant cloth bird with beautiful coloured feathers, explored our movements through animals and Scottish dancing, and engaged in creating a wonderful performance.

Many parents and adults within the camp approached us and shared their stories and professions. I met artists and architects, surgeons and labourers, all of whom were frustrated at not being able to contribute their skills. Many we spoke to had received threats from organisations such as the Taliban which had caused them to flee their homes, and while they showed nothing but gratitude to the Greeks for giving them shelter and supplies, they felt they have no future. Hearing so many feel this way was upsetting, but made our work to inspire creativity and community spirit even more vital in our minds.

The performance brought together children and adults of mixed ages, descents, backgrounds and life stories, and the tent was filled with a sense of everyone being equal, receiving and enjoying the same opportunity to join us in our journey through the Tin Forest. It was an experience none of us are likely to forget.

Sarah: Having recently completed the Music in the Community course, I was given the opportunity to travel to Greece to participate in this project.

To me, it was about connecting with refugee children on a human level using our musical skills and experience in the community, and giving them space to express themselves creatively and playfully. This included a lot of singing, rhythmic work, exploration of instruments, drawing, movement and dance.

In a very chaotic environment, where lives have been filled with trauma and experiences we can hardly imagine, I have witnessed how these activities provide a structured environment where people can play and explore. I think this is important for children in any social situation, but particularly crucial in those camps, where there is little opportunity for safe self-exploration and development.

While we mainly worked with children in Eleonas, one day we also visited Elliniko, a camp set in an old airport, which appears to receive much less funding. As we arrived, we saw the very precarious living conditions of refugees there: basic tents set on the concrete under the blazing sun. We found a patch of shade, and performed the show to a group of children who gathered, with Dee leading some interactive parts for them to join in. There was so much joy that was shared with everyone, there was so much response from the children, and so much gratefulness from the parents, which contrasted with the grim and hopeless environment.

This project has definitely made me want to be further involved with this type of work, and we are hoping this is the start of a regular collaboration with the University of Athens to continue this valuable work in the refugee camps.

This trip was a collaboration with the community music programme at the University of Athens, where Dee will train students on working with children to use music and imaginative play in developing social skills and understanding the world around them.

Music students travel to refugee camps in Greece
Image courtesy of Louis McHugh
Music students from ECA travelled were amongst others carrying out the project
Music students travel to refugee camps in Greece for community music project
Image courtesy of Giorgos Mikrogiannakis
L to R: Christina Bain, Joy Vamvakari, Dee Isaacs, Kirsty Renton and Sarah Gross at Elliniko refugee camp

Helping children understand the world around them

Dee Isaacs has produced many events involving marginalised communities and has trained psychologists to work with deeply traumatised children using music and the creative arts.

For three years, she was the UK Co-ordinator for War Child in the Caucasus, working with refugee communities from Abkhazia and street children in Tbilisi.

In March 2016, she produced Postcards from Our World, a large-scale, site-specific work with Leith Walk Primary School which took as its starting point the treacherous journey taken by many families across the seas.

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