Emmylou Harris: refugees ‘have so much to offer’
17 June 2016

Emmylou Harris (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
What I’ve seen in these refugee camps – especially the unaccompanied minors – is that there’s still hope. There’s an incredibly light in the eyes of these very children.
(Shire, Ethiopia) June 17, 2016 – Grammy winning singer/songwriter Emmylou Harris traveled to Ethiopia in June as part of a Jesuit Refugee Service delegation to learn more about issues affecting refugees, particularly the need for education. Ms. Harris visited several JRS projects, including the JRS Urban Refugee Center in Addis Ababa that provides educational training, counseling and emergency aid, such as rent and food support for newly arrived refugees. While in Addis Ababa she visited the homes of refugees, an experience she said moved and inspired her. Ms. Harris also traveled with the delegation to visit refugee camps in the country’s north, home to more than 36,000 refugees from nearby Eritrea.  

During a break while in the northern Ethiopian city of Shire, Ms. Harris talked with Jesuit Refugee Service about her impressions, how she came to partner with JRS, her upcoming concert tour to raise awareness and funds for refugees, and what the world can do to help mitigate the refugee crisis.

Question: What were your impressions while visiting the refugee camps?

Emmylou Harris:  It was just wonderful to see all the young people. Despite whatever hardships they’d gone through to get to this refugee camp, there seemed to be so much joy and innocence and hope. I was just overwhelmed by it, really – the sweetness of all the young people. I had been warned by some that I might be … overwhelmed by the despair of it all. I know that there are terrible conditions and so much has to be done, but there’s so much hope there, so much promise. It really affected me in a very positive way.

Q: What were your first thoughts when you heard about the refugee crisis?

EH: Of course the refugee crisis has been in the news and we see it on TV and we hear the statistics – 60 million (displaced) people. And of course if you’re human you feel a certain sense of, ‘oh why is this happening? Something has to be done.’ I think you feel overwhelmed. But the ability to see if firsthand was an extraordinary gift for me… These unaccompanied minors are so brave to give up their families, or perhaps their families encouraged them to come to a place where they wouldn’t be in such a repressed society with no hope. And what I’ve seen in these refugee camps – especially the unaccompanied minors – is that there’s still hope. There’s an incredibly light in the eyes of these children and older adolescents. There’s just a spirt there and I believe the seeds of great promise. But they do need a leg up, they do need resources, and it’s going to take money. I was so impressed with the work of JRS in these camps. They’re giving them English classes and classes in computer training, as well as – very important, I believe – art and music (training). And sports. These are activities that keep their bodies active, their minds active. I don’t know what the answers are going forward, but I know we can’t abandon this amazing group of people.

Q: How did you come to support the work of Jesuit Refugee Service?

EH: I came to be involved, at least on the periphery as a witness with JRS and what they do, through a friend, who years earlier brought me into the Campaign for a Landmine Free World. I was an artist, we did shows in the United States and in Europe to raise money and awareness and to try to, on the political side, hopefully put some pressure on banding landmines (universally), which never happened. But more importantly we did raise some money and were able to help some of the victims of landmines. So this friend of mine was quite moved by the refugee crisis, and she thought that we could perhaps use the same blueprint for raising money and awareness for the refugee crisis, especially with education programs in the camps. And we went to JRS to partner with them because they already were in the camps doing this work. We needed a partner. And that’s where I got the invitation from JRS to come to Ethiopia.

Q: What part do you think that education can play in the lives of refugees?

EH: I think if I’ve got one thing I’m going to take back is that I believe that education is the key to everything. These minds need to be challenged and developed, and they are a huge resource for the countries that they are in now or wherever they may end up. But we have to give them the tools to develop their hearts and their minds and their souls, to use the abilities that they have that are still intact. It’s just a huge potential. I don’t know how to go about it, but I have a great deal of faith in the organizations of JRS and United Nations refugee agency… We have to have the resources to give them a chance to realize their potential.

Q: I understand you’re planning a series of concerts next fall to raise awareness and money for refugees. What do you hope to accomplish?

EH: What I’m going to try to do, what I can offer, is my ability to perform and have people come see me, along with some other artists. Patty Griffin is going to be one of the lynchpins, in addition to myself and Buddy Miller. And we will have other revolving group of artists joining us on stage. It’s in the round – there will be no bands, no big production. It’s just people singing songs, telling stories. And hopefully my experience in Africa will give me a chance to speak somewhat intelligently about what is going on. I think that’s important to have that personal experience. These shows – it will raise money, and yes, we must have money to put these programs for refugees into place that I feel are so necessary – not only to continue them but to expand. But I think awareness – beyond what you see on CNN – that personal experience, connected with that experience of hearing music, is very powerful.

Q: I understand you’re calling the tour Lampedusa. How did you come to that name?

EH: We’re calling this tour that is going to happen in the United States in October Lampedusa, named after an island off the coast of Italy where there have been a lot of refugees coming from North Africa through Libya. Many died (along the way). And Pope Francis, as part of his Year of Mercy, went to Lampedusa to speak, sort of to make an announcement to the world that this was really important – not just to Catholics but to the whole world, (speaking) really to the soul of ourselves as humanity. And Lampedusa also rolls off the tongue quite beautifully. It’s a beautiful word, even though it represents the worst (of the refugee crisis) because people were killed getting there. But it also can represent the best of it because of the Pope making a call to mercy to the world to not turn a blind eye to what was happening.

Q: Could you talk about U.S. policies as they relate to the large numbers of unaccompanied minors and families who are coming across our border with Mexico?

EH: I love my country very much. But I do believe that we have a problem that is right at our backdoor with the unaccompanied minors coming across the border (with Mexico), and of course the immigration problem that has been used to whip up the worst angels of our nature instead of opening our hearts to the fact that we are a country of immigrants. And of course every time there has been a wave of immigrants from another country there has been pushback, there have been problems. But we always eventually absorb these people, who bring their special talents, their special gifts and their culture, which is what makes America so incredibly unique and special. It has improved our country and made it grow into what it is, which is an example to the world, I think… Perhaps Lampedusa, because we will be talking about our problem on our shores as well as the refugee crisis that’s happening outside our borders, perhaps that will engage people to put pressure on their politicians and say this is who we are and not what the media is focusing on.

Q: Was there one or two things that really stood out, that moved you, when you visited the refugee camps?

EH: There was so much about this trip to Ethiopia that affected me. But I tell you something, the dancing was the first thing. We saw a show given to people who come to (the camps) so they can learn a little bit about the culture. But the dancing and the music and the instrumentation and the beautiful beat and the fire and the joy and the dancing, I was enthralled. Then I saw the same instrumentation, the same wonderful beat, the amazing dancing, in the tiniest of children and the oldest of the people – that dance of joy, of just being connected to the world, connected to the earth, and the rhythm of life, and of course that was very visceral for me… They have not lost hope. They’re still open, and they believe in the goodness of the world and of the people around them. And I hope that the world will not disappoint them.

Q: When you were in Addis Ababa you visited refugees in their homes. Can you please tell us a little bit about that experience?

EH: The two families that I visited each lived in a single room. The first family I visited included a man who had seriously medical problems and can’t work, and his wife is epileptic and pregnant with their first child. On a positive side, the landlord – the gentleman who owns the house – is letting them stay rent free. But (the home) has absolutely the bare necessities; there is no kitchen, it’s just one room. The second home was even smaller, but I will say I was incredibly impressed. It was a mother and a daughter from Yemen. The daughter is in the ninth grade who spoke incredible English. It’s just stunning to see this young woman so well spoken, so eloquent, so committed to her education. That’s what I mean about the potential of these people who have fled their country and are looking for a better life. They have so much to offer the world that they’re living in. This girl could be the poster child for that… But once again it’s money. We need money to make it possible for her to continue her education, wherever she ends up. I hope she comes to America; we could use her. 

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