When Eyes Brighten


Carriers of Hope performing at Coventry Cathedral [photo: Jayne Mapp]

On Saturday afternoon I was sitting quietly, feeling like a tiny ant in the huge and inspiring space of Coventry Cathedral, waiting for our final rehearsals to start for the first performance of When A Child Is A Witness – requiem for refugees at 5pm. I was wondering – who might come today? Would any of the mums and babies come? Would any of the teenage boys come? As migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, all with complicated and challenging lives, would any be able to come?

European Youth Music Refugee Choir with Liz at Coventry Cathedral

I knew that all the group leaders had been working really hard to make sure everyone knew when and where to come today, but I also knew that nothing was guaranteed.

As people do start to arrive, to my joy, I am also aware that there is a sense of some people being heavily loaded. Eyes are down, brows are furrowed. Maybe this is due to nervousness about the event? This building is a new environment for many, a strange place, and no-one really knows what to expect. There are over 100 performers but no group has seen or heard any of the others, no-one knows what will happen. Also the news is dire. Ukraine is invaded and the headlines are full of war. Maybe these things, and maybe other things too, add to a sense of worry.

Performers preparing to start When A Child Is A Witness – requiem for refugees [photo: Jayne Mapp]

As I greet each person I am full of pride for what they bring to the performance, and as the rehearsal ends and we prepare to start, I know this will be something very special. What I hadn’t anticipated was the change in people’s eyes.

Eyes that start to brighten, shining, with a face that glows. I hadn’t expected that.

As the performance time approaches I know there are several key people who are not here. For some, I know the reason why they couldn’t be with us, for others, I don’t. What I do hold on to is that those who couldn’t make it are held close to our hearts, and we are performing this for them.

Inini performing at Coventry Cathedral,
supported by Belgrade Theatre and Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre [photo: Jayne Mapp]

When Inini sings ‘Amazing Grace’ I know they are all thinking of Last, the inspirational leader who set up this group to support mental health in her community. Last is not able to be with us today, but she is in everyone’s hearts. As the small group sing out the famous words, the other singers from Ex Cathedra gently hum the harmonies in support. With the accompanying singers spread all around the outside of the cathedral space, it sounds as if the walls, the roof and the foundations are joining in with this powerful hymn of redemption and hope.

Kadialy Kouyate and Ex Cathedra performing ‘When A Child Is A Witness – requiem for refugees’ [photo: Jayne Mapp]

Together we raise our voices and it seems like together we connect in a deep way. We listen, speak and sing in different languages. We hear stories of danger, of escape, and messages to keep going, help is at hand.

We look each other in the eye and smile, knowing that – together – we are stronger.

Composer Liz Dilnot Johnson singing with Ravensdale Primary School Choir, Ex Cathedra and refugee groups at Coventry Cathedral [photo: Jayne Mapp]
Yathreb from Sharing Cultures, supported by Belgrade Theatre and Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre
reciting her poem ‘Fly Dove, Fly’ in Kurdish [photo: Jayne Mapp]

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 Justgiving campaign here

Read the reviews

“a new requiem ‘for peace’ with apposite timing as Europe faces war” – 5* review of When a Child is a Witness – Behind the Arras Read review

“one of the most significant and poignant contributions to Coventry’s City of Culture celebrations” – review of When a Child is a Witness -Seen and Heard International Read review

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