Monica S. Baker ’15 Leads Creative Writing Workshops with Refugees at the Mosaik Support Center on the Island of Lesbos, Greece
In January, Monica Baker had the opportunity to travel to Greece to volunteer in what is being called the largest humanitarian crisis of our era. Wild Things checked in with our WCYA grad to hear about her experience and how she is using her writing life in the world.
Monica, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing, and what led you to decide to come to VCFA to get your MFA with us?
I come from two long lines of divergent storytellers: my mother’s family members are Canadian Maritimers and my father’s are homesteading Nebraska farmers. That those two people found each other and married is a story for another time!
As one of eight kids, I have always been adaptable, usually open to different experiences, and a sponge for stories (eavesdropping is a forte). I am also one of those people who was pretty much all over the place growing up – including where I grew up! I was born and raised in California’s Santa Clara Valley until I was 12, then southern Wisconsin for 2 years, Sao Paolo, Brazil for high school, Midwest for undergrad, and Virginia for my first grad school experience. I now live in Maryland, on the D.C. line. Through all of my moves, I carried my paper and pen.
After a liberal arts degree that played to my all over the place interests (international relations and language), I entered business school in order to get my left-brain in shape.
But, while two hard years of labor and an MBA “lefted me” more academically balanced, I learned something in business school that I hadn’t expected: I am, first and foremost, a creative!
Never the classmate to go to for stats or accounting help, I was definitely the person to go to for crafting and writing case studies and presentations. Even under heavy academic pressure, I was a storyteller and slowly acknowledged the fact that it was the right side of my brain that actually got me through b-school!
I took that understanding forward into my consulting career and never let it go. Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of wild organizations and projects that have transported me all over the world. Even so, I’ve always felt an itch to write fiction. A hankering. Once I became pregnant with my third child and thought my right brain was mush forever, I resisted hormonal havoc by throwing myself into children’s writing classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland with the wonderful Mary Quattlebaum.
My life has never been the same.
Mary launched me into a life of writing exploration and, sometime after my novel Freestyle was published, encouraged me to apply to VCFA. It took me years, but by 2013 I had decided that I needed to challenge my creative writing and take it to another level. I researched both MA and MFA programs and decided that the structure and latitude of VCFA was right for me. Thank you, Mary Q! I still consult, but also write Middle Grade and Picture Book, and teach creative writing for WritopiaLab, DC.
In January, you led creative writing workshops with refugees at the Mosaik Support Center on the island of Lesbos, Greece. How did you come upon this opportunity? Tell us more about your experience there and how these workshops affected these refugees.
Yes, I did and I pinch myself everyday when I think of the rich relationships I took away from that experience. (This might be a “two cups of tea” answer.)
In my most recent consulting assignment, I worked on behalf of the Jesuit Refugee Service to create a U.S. concert tour to raise awareness and money for the education of refugees in over 50 countries. When our 2017 tour ended last fall (Dave Matthews, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Robert Plant, Brandi Carlile and others), I fell from a high having an impact on others, into a sort of do-gooder withdrawal. I write more and better when I’m busy and the withdrawal put me into a creative slump. At Thanksgiving, my college daughter announced that she would be doing a month of service on Lesbos with a refugee relief organization. Well, I was not going to let that synergistic moment slip through my hands and decided on the spot that I would work through my slump by helping someone else. I booked a ticket to Lesbos and contacted Mosaik Support Center, a nonprofit that I was familiar with due to my contacts, but different than where my daughter was to work.
21 year old + mom encroaching too close to her space = recipe for disaster
21 year old + mom co-existing on the same island in the Aegean = potential success
Mosaik is a center unlike any other on Lesbos – I like to say that it’s where refugees go to smile.
A collaborative project run by Lesvos Solidarity and borderline-europe, it’s a vibrant center where over 700 refugees, NGO workers and locals go weekly to learn language, the arts, vo-tech skills … even yoga. Basically, it’s a center that allows refugees to integrate with locals and gives them dignity in their time of crisis.
For those of you who might not know the “refugee space,” it is overwhelmed. Especially on Lesbos, where these desperate people land in rubber dinghies on the island’s shores. I was fortunate to be able to bring my specific experiences to Mosaik – generally, the on-the ground refugee agencies and organizations don’t look for volunteers and would really prefer that you send cash instead of your time. And, that’s understandable: currently, 65 million people are displaced globally and only a third of them have official refugee status. Globally, one percent of refugees get resettled, leaving us with the largest humanitarian crisis in our era. Global aid funding of the crisis will probably never be enough.
The Students and Teaching At Mosaik
Regarding Mosaik, I was sure they didn’t need me to swoop in and lead workshops for just a week, especially as they already have some very accomplished Greek and Afghan writer/instructors on deck.
What I did think, however, is that they could use my skills – my understanding of the refugee crisis combined with my writing and teaching aptitude – to empower those teachers. I could help refresh their teaching techniques and mojo, so that’s what I pitched and was then welcomed to do.
After my first day of mojo-infusion at Mosaik, where I co-led a workshop, I was asked to fill in for one of the teachers who deserved a much-needed break. Voila! I became the leader of the creative fiction workshop for the week.
In all of the Mosaik workshops, the composition of the class might change daily, depending on who receives papers to leave the island – often immediately. The camps on Lesbos are supposedly “temporary,” but due to the 2016 EU-Turkey deal, refugees are basically captive until they either receive asylum papers and are moved to the Greek mainland, or are shipped back to where they fled from, many having fled war, the Taliban, and Boko Haram. Lesbos is currently known as an “asylum warehouse,” the overcrowded camps keeping people in squalid conditions for over 2 years. My students (about 20 of them aged 18 – 55) all arrived via Turkey, where they boarded overcrowded dinghies run by smugglers, but originally hailed from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Congo, and Nigeria. While they boasted varied cultures and languages, they all fled terror and were all – up to the point on Lesbos – survivors. I taught in English and while many understood some basics, the students interpreted for each other and for me, usually in three languages: Farsi, Arabic, and French. Most importantly, these students shared the desire to explore their own stories through the creative writing process. I could not have had more emotionally engaged, supportive, and motivated students.
Because of my limited time on Lesbos, and the fluid nature of the class, we focused on writing verse. No constraints!
While at VCFA I was a summer ‘15 workshop student of Kathi Appelt’s when Karen Hesse visited and gave us what I call a Flash Poetry prompt. I don’t consider myself a poet, but use the exercise a lot in my own writing and teaching and was not surprised that my refugee students loved it, as well as some of my own creativity drills, combined with sensory inspirations I gleaned from Joni Sensel (Craftographer ’15). There’s nothing like cutting open fresh Greek lemons in class!
My students shared not only their own, very personal stories in verse, but also works of their favorite poets. Rumi, the 13th century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, was a class favorite (and, uh, yeah … I had to look up his work). Because their usual teacher was Greek, they had spent some time ruminating over the works of Greek poets, from Sappho (of Lesbos) to Kostas Varnalis, but had no exposure to American poetry. I felt compelled to do that, and introduced various works of Nikki Giovanni and Caged Bird by Maya Angelou. The students were truly dumbstruck by how these two poets, both black Americans, captured their own feelings of despair, hope, and resistance. You’ll see in the video clip how the center was inspired by Caged Bird.
How did your experiences or the lectures and advisors at VCFA help you understand the importance of creative writing from a larger perspective — for example, how creative writing could benefit refugees?
Where do I count the ways? First off, we are fortunate to have the luxury to embrace creative writing as “our thing.” We can and should talk about how important our work is to the universe (which I believe), but when you stop to honestly assess where we fall on the 21st century humanity spectrum, we VCFA’ers are blessed to have the privilege of a supportive community, time, and the mental space to devote to our writing. I feel the need to share that blessing.
What I specifically learned at VCFA, and continue to work on, is the value of placing raw emotion, word-by-word, on the page (thank you Jane, Uma, Sarah Ellis). Way better than therapy, in my opinion!
For the refugees, that process is empowering and allows them the opportunity to tell their own stories and to take back what has been taken away: their dignity, their power, their humanity.
Bonnie Christensen, my first advisor, also pushed me to use my humor in my writing. Bonnie taught me that it’s OK to add levity, even in unleavened situations! To me, it is monumentally empowering to help someone put his or herself on the page, especially with a dollop of fun thrown in. As I write this, I see the smiling face of one of my favorite gentlemen, who hailed from Iraq. On my last day at Mosaik I attended a poetry reading and afterwards, Hamidula told me that I had given him life. That sounds corny when I write it, but this guy went back to the Moria camp where 8,000 people live squashed in a space designed for 2,500, and started a poetry group. To me, that snippet of poetry effort constitutes life, even if for a short while.
Were there any pieces of writing you shared with them during your workshop?
This is from a VCFA moment! After leaving Lesbos, I received a prompt from VCFA’s Poetry Friday and the image was of a pelican. A few days before, at the poetry reading, I had met a refugee from Jamaica. YO! Jamaica! How the heck did that happen? I knew not to ask questions, but that meeting plus the prompt ended up in a piece of flash poetry that I shared via email:
There is a pelican at the poetry reading
They’re rare on the island
so it must have flown in on a raft
or Afghanistan via Turkey
Or how about those birds
that make it all the way from the Congo?
I don’t know how they do that
Huge hearts and wings, I suppose
They come to the reading
to translate and digest Rumi
and Brecht and Descartes and Angelou
To breathe for a moment in rhythm
But this, the pelican
has different words to share
Far beyond Neruda
It folds its wings and settles in to rest
to read of universal truth
Family, home and heartbreak
Tales escape on waves of war
and drip from tears of trauma
But the pelican persists, up tempo
And the birds listen
From Iraq or Afghanistan via Turkey
and all the way from the Congo
They listen. No translation needed
What would you say to other writers who are interested in incorporating writing opportunities like this into their writing life? How has this experience changed the way you write?
My experience with refugees on Lesbos left me with a very personal internal thread that I often tug on for inspiration. The people I worked alongside are facing statistically grueling odds for success, yet they haul themselves when possible by city bus from a squalid camp to Mosaik, where they can read and write poetry. Poetry! These people don’t have consistent access to toilets and they want to write poetry. Now, there isn’t an excuse on Earth that would keep my butt out of my cushy writing chair! And when I sit, I am inspired to go there and not to hold back.
Also, this was not a “one and done” experience for me, so I continue to volunteer for Mosaik by reviewing/editing their external communications and by steering them to sources of funds. (Contact me if you know of supporters who are looking to support the arts, integration, and refugee empowerment)!
To all writers, I would say grab any opportunity you can to put yourself as a writer or teacher in a group of “the other;” any “other!” You don’t need to visit a refugee island to walk in someone else’s shoes. I just finished a month of teaching essay writing to DC’s Upward Bound students. While of course not as dramatic an experience, I probably took more away from these kids, whose life experiences are extremely different than mine, than they did from me.
Compassion for yourself and for “the other” comes with practice and exposure.
When working with any at risk group, whether within or outside of the US, I would also suggest two things: if white, beware the White Savior Syndrome and DON’T DO IT. Work with and not on people. If American working overseas, beware the American Savior Syndrome and DON’T DO IT. Rather, do your homework and be sensitive and respectful of the work that has already been laid. Regardless, do work on putting yourself in the other’s shoes, bring your talents to the table, be humble, and spread the writing love. DO IT!