Trusting the process


I’m sitting with a welcome cup of steaming peppermint tea in a cosy corner of a café while the rain chucks down outside on the street. I’m glad of a chance to relax – and to take stock of the week so far, before I head off for another #whenachildisawitness project rehearsal later with choir Ex Cathedra this evening. This project brings them together with refugee groups and a children’s choir, all creating and performing new material on the theme of refuge and hope as part of the Coventry City Of Culture celebrations.

The movements of the Requiem Mass are interspersed with six mediations I have called ‘Windows’, inspired by the extraordinary windows of Coventry Cathedral. These ‘Windows’ are being presented by refugees groups invited to take part, and we have set up a process of creative support, seeking out stories and words from those who have found refuge here in Coventry.

As my drink cools I’m thinking back to a couple of weekends ago when I was with European Youth Music Refugee Choir, an organisation supporting young adults in Coventry and Leicester. In this session the group collected some key words about the challenges of life.

Stained glass detail, Coventry Cathedral

We start with the word ‘protect’. Greg, the group leader asks ‘who protects you?’ The first two answers came quickly – Mohammed says, ‘my mother’, Priyank says, ‘my father’ and, after some moments thinking from Aines, and with a raised eyebrow she says – ‘myself?’ We agree that this is a great answer, and a brave one.

We collect other words ‘success’, ‘failure’ and make a list of all these words in the different languages represented by the group. Someone has the idea that these form a cycle, through successes and failures, we learn – all part of life …and love. The process has begun.

Over the next couple of sessions the young people will refine their ideas over a heartbeat pattern and will perform their new piece alongside a hundred performers, including other refugee groups, a children’s choir and Ex Cathedra. All this will happen at the iconic Coventry Cathedral – a building that was itself born out of war.

‘Reconciliation’ in the bombed-out ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral

I started my day with twenty or so mums at Carriers of Hope, Let’s Play, making a film of their new song ‘I will carry you’ that they have written especially for their toddlers and babies to sing as one of the other ‘Windows’ in the performance.

The Spring sunshine comes out on cue (the rain only descends later, fortunately!) and everyone is on top form – somehow the cameraman dances his way around the enthusiastic little ones, who are keen to perform. Mums, Judith and Eman, bubble with excitement as they film a short interview about their involvement in writing and performing the new song they composed. Their sense of joy about being part of this group is palpable. Here’s Eman and Judith talking about their experience in this short film.

‘My daughter was scared of people before. Now she has lots of friends and she loves to sing all the songs at home.’

Eman, Carriers of Hope

Earlier in the week I spend a much quieter but no less intense time with the Sharing Cultures group, supported by Kim, the Embedded Community Producer at the Belgrade Theatre and also by Jen from the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre

We learn the title song ‘When a Child Is A Witness’ and a participant suggests some choreography for the final verse, with everyone outstretching, then lifting our arms into the air together.

Sharing Cultures group
at Belgrade Theatre

One of the group speaks of their recent discovery of the beauty of choral music. As a singer in the Choir With No Name in The Ghost in the Ruins (Nitin Sawhney) they say, ‘I never listened to this sort of choir music before but now I love it. The last time we sang it, in the performance, I had tears down my face.’

A powerful poem is shared. Speaking in Kurdish, the words are intoned, an expressive call, shaped and extended to emphasise their meaning. We then hear an English translation of the poem and we are all struck by its powerful imagery. The eloquence of its message hits home for me. Called ‘Fly Dove, Fly’ it is an allegory for an escape from danger.

As I sip my drink in the cafe, I feel a strong sense of hope. Trusting the process – creating a space and inviting responses – seems to be paying off.

Refugees are sharing the words that express their stories, providing us with a window into their experiences and enriching us through them.

Coventry Cathedral Saturday 26th February 5pm.

When A Child Is A Witness – a requiem for refugees 

a dynamic patchwork of music, stories and poetry

More info here 

Book your tickets here

Coventry City Of Culture

Liz Dilnot Johnson is a composer and co-muser based in Herefordshire, UK. 

stunning‘ Liz Dilnot Johnson’s double album Intricate Web

‘she has an extraordinary intuition for what works’ Jeffrey Skidmore OBE

Support the ongoing #whenachildisawitness project here

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