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"I am a singer and a songwriter but I am also a father, four times over. I am a friend to dogs. I am a sworn enemy of the saccharine; and a believer in grace over karma. I talk too much when I'm drunk and sometimes even when I'm not." — Bono, 2001 Harvard graduation speech

Will You Be My Sanctuary? The Refugees of Songs Of Experience


The band have spent many summers in the south of France, it’s a place that has saved us from ourselves, reintroduced us to the love of our lives, to our families, to our music. Nights getting playful with the morning, afternoons with the sun beating the sh*** out of the day. The sun teasing our Irishness that we weren’t just white. We were pink. The Mediterranean sits there like a lake, bringing a calm I rarely find elsewhere. But the past few summers, there’s been a certain foreboding on what used to be such a placid horizon. Whether or not we could see it, once we read the news reports and saw the images, we could feel it.

The war in Syria was just across the water.

“When all is lost we found out what remains, oh the same oceans crossed, for some it’s pleasure, for some it’s pain. I’ve been thinking ‘bout the west coast.”

The west coast of Syria, on the same Mediterranean Sea, where we watched nurses and teachers, people who looked a lot like us holding tight to their children, to a few possessions, tying themselves to almost nothing. To a hope, a dream, of another shore, a rubber boat, wooden pallets. Human wreckage washing up in Turkey or Italy, who knows where …

Adam had turned the band onto the photographer and filmmaker Richard Mosse and his installation in Brooklyn, using military grade thermal film to record the ghost lives of refugees. It left us speechless. A bleak but extraordinary vision. So the album has two love songs with pungent dark clouds crouching over them. Petrol skies. Beautiful but flammable. Summer of Love. Red Flag Day.

Bono - Songs Of Experience liner notes

Songs Of Experience is an album full of topics Bono holds dear. Throughout U2’s career, the members have been raising the red flag on human rights issues. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the band addresses the current global refugee crisis in the three middle tracks — the heart, if you will — of a deeply personal album: “American Soul,” “Summer Of Love” and “Red Flag Day,” too. By keeping this topic in the foreground, U2 challenges us to put names to the countless faces of the millions of modern-day refugees fleeing their homes due to violence: people like Abu Ward, the gardener of Aleppo; or Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy.

In “American Soul,” the first of the trinity of songs on the topic, Bono brings up a term coined by Croatian Baptist theologian Boris Peterlin in his book published in 2000, RefuJesus. Peterlin makes the case that Jesus himself was a refugee as described in Matthew 2:13-15, and that as such Jesus identifies with the suffering of today’s refugees. Peterlin takes it one step further in the symbolism of welcoming refugees as welcoming Jesus. American pastor Rev. Dan Buttry said, “RefuJesus — the God who came among us is still showing up among us as the Syrian child washed up on a beach, as the child of a family applying for sanctuary and asylum, as the one needing our help in the flight from violence.” Bono’s call for sanctuary in “American Soul” is a plea for help, but it’s falling on deaf ears in the U.S.

Bono states in the Songs Of Experience liner notes that “we felt the idea of America was being challenged, maybe even twisted, in newly problematic ways. The rise of the alt-right is not a surprise — it’s happening all over the world — but to see it in the U.S.A., to see the Ku Klux Klan marching the streets of Charlottesville, without the silly costumes and pointy hats, that was a new level of absurdity and danger. Edge described it as ‘the mental illness of racism’ unmasked. Why did they feel so emboldened? Talk of banning of Muslims from America for fear of a terror threat would be like the British in the seventies and eighties banning all Irish from the U.K. for fear one of us could be in the IRA. Of course we could — but you can’t ban air because it carries a virus. And so we watched the betrayal of those words of Emma Lazarus, at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, great words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’ Yes, it felt like a betrayal.”

While “American Soul” is a letter to America, Bono describes “Summer Of Love” and “Red Flag Day” as photographs. Bono told music journalist Ruud de Wild, “‘I’ve been thinking of the west coast, not the one that everyone knows’: Syria. People escaping the west coast of Syria. We live together — we have a little compound in the south of France. It’s our reward for growing up in Ireland where it f***ing rains every day. We live our summers, we listen to music and we have great times. Recently the summers have had this kind of thing on the horizon, you know. Even if we couldn’t see them and you saw the news reports, you knew that was there and you couldn’t get it out of your head. You couldn’t unsee these people — Syrian refugees — fleeing their country. Tying themselves to wooden pallets and crowding onto rubber boats. It’s the same sea that we’re sitting drinking rosé with our kids. It’s still a love song, ‘Summer Of Love,’ but they’re the shadows on the horizon. And then ‘Red Flag Day’ comes from the same place.”

“Summer Of Love” introduces us to Abu Ward, the Gardener of Aleppo. His name means “Father of the Flowers.” Amid the bombs, missiles and violence, Ward saw the beauty in the plants he grew with his son and shared what he could with others, hoping to create a bit of beauty and hope in hellish conditions. Ward said, “Those who see flowers enjoy the beauty of the world created by God. And when you smell them they nourish the heart and the soul. The essence of the world is a flower.” His 13-year-old son, Ibrahim, left school to help his dad. In 2016, Ward’s life tragically ended when a barrel bomb landed near his garden, leaving Ibrahim and his siblings fatherless. His story became part of Channel 4 News’ Inside Aleppo report.

The juxtaposition of the different west coasts in “Summer Of Love” is stark. The dire situation of those looking to flee the west coast of Syria blends with a more casual fancy of moving to the west coast of California, where the weather is better. Bono told Bill Flanagan during his “Written On My Soul” program on SiriusXM, “The west coast … that’s a reference to the west of Syria, but of course I’m using it to refer to the United States and the summer of love.” The song is also reminiscent of “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas in both lyric and tone, “On a winter’s day, I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.”

The third song in this trinity is “Red Flag Day;” a New Wave sounding song that tackles the new wave of refugees breaking across the shore. A red flag warning is used for wildfires to indicate combustion and rapid spread, and for beaches to indicate the surf is high and may have dangerous currents. That combination could describe the influx of refugees upon the shores of western Europe. In the “Written On My Soul” interview, Bono referenced Alan — Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while trying to flee with his family. His lifeless body washed up on a beach in Turkey on Sept. 2, 2015. His mother, Rihanna, and older brother Ghalib also drowned, but it was Alan’s picture that took the story viral. By that point, over 3,600 other refugees had died while trying to cross the Mediterranean. Bono was so moved by Alan’s story that during the European leg of the Innocence + Experience tour in 2015, he changed the lyrics to “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” after his passing: “One boy washed up on an empty beach, one boy never to be kissed.” Bono has sung that changed lyric ever since.

According to The Guardian, as of September 2017, “Over 8,500 have died or disappeared while attempting to cross the Mediterranean since Kurdi’s death.” In “Red Flag Day,” Bono sings, “Not even news today, So many lost in the sea last night, But one word that the sea can’t say is No, no, no, no.”

Bono told Ruud de Wild, “We’re in a moment where Europe is being reimagined. And it’ll be either reimagined by people who don’t have much imagination and want to go back to old nationalisms. After globalization comes localization. Or we have to reimagine it — everyone; left and right, artists, everybody. What is Europe? I’ve felt that Europe is a thought that needs to become feeling. We read about it, we live in it, it’s great — it’s a concept, cold concept. But Europe to me is a really romantic project, and it’s a betrayal of Europe when we let people drown in the seas around us. That is not who we are. And if we want to feel European, that’s how we feel European. Chancellor Merkel — she did an amazing thing. Holland has been so generous in the past, and will be again. Germany let in these people, seen them arriving in Munich with little shoes and everyone brought — and for the first time, I felt like ‘Oh my God, I’m feeling Europe,’ then this backlash against her. Well, we have a frontlash to that backlash.”

This suite of songs at the center of Songs Of Experience presents the personal and the political of the refugee crisis and weaves it into the album’s greater fabric of faith and sanctuary. The refugee crisis – not only in Syria, but also in Rohingya, Jordan and elsewhere — is one of the greatest challenges we face at this moment. These are songs that will most likely have a place in the setlist for the Experience + Innocence tour, where the band will continue to spread the word with the hopes of changing hearts and minds.

©@U2/Lawrence, 2017