Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles: HIGH STYLE

The Penthouse suite of Serenbe’s textile Lofts, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles’ 2016 Serenbe designer Showhouse, was a fresh interpretation of effortless elegance.

Written By Kate Abney, Photography by Erica George Dines, Produced by Elizabeth Ralls

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Great Room

Kelly Anthony and Jenn Balcos, Wolf Design Group with Swoox

Inspired by the rich green of Serenbe’s treetops, Kelly Anthony set out to create a palette of evergreen, black and white with warm metal tones, keeping patterns understated and few. Most notably, a pair of Rose Tarlow sofas and several vintage brass dining chairs are upholstered in a luxurious Italian green silk velvet and mingle with items such as a dressmaker console designed by BoBo Intriguing Objects, a parchment-topped black bench from Lillian August and a cocktail table originally from South of Market. “I wanted it to feel very organic and collected,” says Anthony, who furnished the space almost entirely with goods from her Buckhead consignment store, Swoox. And in a community that promotes sustainability and repurposing, Wolf Design Group’s philosophy proved a perfect fit. “This demonstrates what a high-end designer can do with secondhand goods. We’re reinventing what consignment can look like,” she says.



Tami Ramsay and Krista Nye Nicholas, Cloth & Kind

“We had been toying with the idea of a custom wallcovering for a while, and when we saw this long hallway, we knew it would be the perfect opportunity,” says Krista Nye Nicholas. “What could have been a very Spartan space—without the traditional use of furniture—allowed our first product design to really shine.” Though she and Tami Ramsay had worked with Oakland, California–based Paper Mills on many previous custom projects, this was their first creation from scratch. The design evolved over time (120-plus hours of labor and artistry by owner Amy Mills, to be exact) to reflect a narrative that resonated with Serenbe’s classic Southern landscape. Expert installation allowed the mural to bend beautifully around the room’s many angles (including geometric ledges at the far end). Accenting without detracting are circular ikebana vases of pea pods and cotton—whose bolls, Ramsay notes, are quite sculptural in themselves.

WALLPAPER custom by Amy Mills, Paper Mills, available through Cloth & Kind CERAMICS R. Wood Studio and Sookjae Art PAPER LANTERNS Cloth & Kind


Nancy Duffey, Scout for the Home

 Nancy Duffey was fortunate to work in concert with her husband, J. Ryan Duffey (the building’s architect), to beautify this showhouse’s sun-drenched cooking space. Together with kitchen designer Kingdom Woodworks, the pair sought to express the natural beauty of the oak, adding a lime wax that provided a lovely coloring in contrast with the reclaimed floors. The room’s heavyweight moment is its combined vent hood and shelving concept, where everything blends into the backdrop as a single built-in component. Collections of local black-and-white pottery were selected on an ethos of quality over quantity to reflect the restrained luxury of Serenbe’s pastoral community. An island features gold-flecked quartz forming an elegant waterfall edge, while brass wire stools accent this element without obscuring it. “The room is very open-concept, yet cozy,” Duffey says. “You could have dinner by yourself here and not feel alone.”

CABINETRY Kingdom Woodworks FLOORING authentic reclaimed floors APPLIANCES Thermador COUNTERTOPS LG Hausys, fabricated by Miami Circle marble FAUCET Renaissance Tile & Bath HARDWARE Holland Interiors BLACK GLAZED CERAMICS B.D. Jeffries and Noah J. & Co. ADDITIONAL ACCESSORIES Noah J. & Co. RUNNER Keivan Woven Arts ALL OTHER ITEMS Scout for the Home

Keeping Room

Bradley Odom, Dixon Rye

 The penthouse’s multipurpose game room/study/lounge was designed to double as a sleeping spot when company comes calling. “I just want to curl up here with a blanket and drink bourbon,” says designer Bradley Odom. The daybed’s rich green velvet is a near match to the walls, so it blends in like a built-in. “I think dark colors in a small space can feel very much like a cocoon,” he says. “Plus it created a blank canvas for the other pops of color.” While it carries the stately, moody masculinity for which Dixon Rye is known, the room’s mix of design influences stands out most. “I imagine the owner as someone who has collected things over time—some traditional, some midcentury, some contemporary,” says Odom. “A house should be a mix of everything you love, and if you have great taste, it just works.”

CEILING PENDANT R Hughes WALL SCONCE Workstead HARRY CUSHING CONTEMPORARY ART Gerald Bland FRAMING Antonio Raimo Galleries ABACA SISAL RUG Patterson Flynn Martin OUSHAK RUG Keivan Woven Arts FABRICS Schumacher, Lee Jofa and Holland & Sherry ALL OTHER ITEMS Dixon Rye


Melanie Davis and Lacey Sombar, Melanie Davis Design

“Because the showhouse benefits the Art Farm at Serenbe, I thought it would be fitting to [turn the bedroom into] an artist studio—specifically, that of a textile artist,” says designer Melanie Davis, who is an artist herself. Anchoring the space behind an airy Lucite desk is a vintage peacock chair and, beyond it, various “textile hoops” that form further punctuation points, especially in tandem with a round mirror to the workspace’s left. Fabrics from Miles Redd, Kelly Wearstler, Peter Fasano and others round out the art installation, while African mud cloths add a touch of rusticity. Black trim adds a crispness that transitions well to the outdoor dining area, while a black-and-white Moroccan rug, midcentury fixture (Serge Mouille’s three-arm ceiling lamp) and vintage brownie cameras flanking the door continue the high-contrast color palette.

VINTAGE PEACOCK CHAIR designer’s own ACRYLIC DESK Peekaboo desk by CB2 DESK LAMP Cleo by Kelly Wearstler BOOKS ON DESK B.D. Jeffries FABRICS ON TEXTILE HOOPS vintage african mud cloths, Miles Redd for Schumacher, Kelly Wearstler for Groundworks and GP & J Baker through Lee Jofa, Dedar through Jerry Pair, Peter Fasano through Travis & Company VINTAGE BOBBINS AND SPOOLS collected from various vendors across the U.S. and in Belgium and France MOROCCAN RUG Keivan Woven Arts CEILING FIXTURE Serge Mouille through Design Within Reach


Steve McKenzie

“I always think of a settee in an entrance hall as an invitation to come on in and be comfortable,” says Steve McKenzie, who embraced the sophisticated modern lifestyle a penthouse affords. “Since this space had no natural light, we avoided making it too bright, making it something it’s not.” The designer selected a mod and moody Mitchell Black paper with a bronze motif that serves as the perfect backdrop for a classical sunburst mirror, a pair of compelling pink quartz specimens atop vintage gilt brackets and, of course, the cocooning custom-built bench. Perfectly proportioned for the tall but narrow space, the winged piece is upholstered in an embossed olive shagreen with a slight metallic tinge. The flanking buffalo leather–topped walnut tables were handcrafted in Asheville, North Carolina, while the hand-beaded Indian pillows are sold through the artist’s eponymous store, Steve McKenzie’s.

WALLPAPER Mitchell Black through Steve Mckenzie’s GRAND LOTUS CHANDELIER Currey & Company OUSHAK RUNNER Moattar, LTD. QUARTZ SPECIMENS Harmonious Living by Tish Mills Interiors WALNUT SHEPHERD COCKTAIL TABLES The Old Wood Co. through Steve Mckenzie’s ALL OTHER ITEMS Steve Mckenzie’s

Master Suite

Kristen Marooney Walls and Shane Robuck, ROBUCK

“I had just purchased the 19th-century brass bed in Toledo, Spain and had it polished. I knew it would pop in this room with the warm wood and all the texture from the hand-brushed Chateau Domingue limewash,” says Shane Robuck, who worked with design partner Kristen Marooney Walls to create a suite replete with Italian, Spanish and French antiques. Even the bathroom boasts 17th-century Italian mirrors. “I imagined a person who traveled constantly, with Serenbe as their refuge in the U.S. They wanted to be surrounded by nice books, interesting art and maps,” Robuck says. Notable pieces range from a pair of French leather chairs flanking a scantonata credenza to an elaborately detailed 17th-century Italian carriage trunk, to 18th-century Kashmir throws that served as the impetus for the design. “These were very en vogue in 19th- century Europe as shawls,” Robuck notes.

MINERAL LIMEWASH Bruxelles, Domingue Architectural Finishes TURKISH OUSHAK RUG Keivan Woven Arts BEDDING Peacock Alley CONTEMPORARY OILS ON CANVAS Pryor Fine Art ALL OTHER FURNISHINGS, ART AND ACCESSORIES Robuck MASTER BATH  SHOWER WALL Neolith fabricated by Miami Circle Marble SHOWER DOOR Atlanta Glass & Mirror TILE Porcelanosa FAUCETS Renaissance Tile & Bath CABINETRY Kingdom Woodworks COUNTERTOPS LG Hausys, fabricated by Miami Circle Mable  

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Susan Hable Smith, Hable Construction Inc.

Setting the stage for welcoming a well-traveled tenant is Athens-based artist and textile artisan Susan Hable Smith’s self-defined “eccentric” design vision. Just outside the elevators, a chenille-upholstered chair and ottoman from Smith’s contemporary furniture collection for Hickory Chair provide a perch upon arrival, and an industrial floor lamp acts as the perfect foil to for the landing’s glam brutalist pendant. Smith’s own India-ink florals on paper provide eye candy, while the adjoining space features a plentitude of pieces by friends—one wall covered in a collage of oils by Carol John, plus photographs by Rinne Allen and Christy Bush. These preside over a curry-colored Moroccan rug, a primitive bench, pillows in Smith’s personal fabrics and an assortment of hats culled the world over. Summing things up, she says, “I prefer unconventional spaces like these so I can be my unconventional self.”

ARTWORK Susan Hable, Christy Bush, Rinne Allen, Carol John and Hope Hilton CHAIR Mimi Chair by Hable for Hickory Chair OTTOMAN Hable for Hickory Chair, available through Bungalow Classic or Hickory Chair Furniture Co. PILLOWS covered in Hable Textiles and Hable for S. Harris Textiles ANTIQUE HATS, INDUSTRIAL FLOOR LAMP, ANTIQUE MOROCCAN RUG, designer’s own 

Powder/Laundry Room

Anna Braund, Anna Braund Interiors

“Serenbe has always been a special place to me,” says Braund. “Our best friends married here, and I always come here for respite, to get away.” This deep understanding inspired the designer to play with elements of nature and artistry in her adjacent laundry and powder room spaces. A floral, paper-backed Clay McLaurin fabric adorns the walls of the powder room, where a gold-flecked quartz runs up the wall to ground the unlacquered brass fixtures Braund had professionally replated. Reflected in the antique mirror glass is a collection of resin tortoise shells. Nearby, a Michael S. Smith wallpaper adds interest to the laundry room, where an étagère serves as surplus storage for Indian kantha quilts, wool throws, layers of pottery and baskets. “To me, a laundry is not just utilitarian; I like to display its things in a lovely way,” says Braund.

powder: CABINETRY Kingdom Woodworks COUNTER AND BACKSPLASH LG Hausys, fabricated at Miami Circle Marble MIRROR Antonio Raimo Galleries UPHOLSTERED WALL FABRIC Clay Mclaurin Studio through Ainsworth-Noah  

laundry room: OUSHAK RUG designer carpets SHELVES, BARSTOOL, QUILTS, VASES Bungalow Classic LINENS Gramercy Fine Linens & Furnishings

Outdoor Porches

Bjork Studio and Kolo Collection with Sunbrella 

To play up the rooftop’s expansive square footage and unbeatable views, Atlanta design firms Bjork Studio and Kolo Collection collaborated with outdoor textile giant Sunbrella (which the latter retails) to create a collective dream of a Hollywood-glam outdoor party space. Kolo’s Michelle Martin envisioned the French doors flung open, revelers filtering in and out freely and gathering in intimate conversation groups—perhaps around the fire pit—or dining at the custom Skylar Morgan table. A black-and-white striped pergola above touts tassels made from Sunbrella’s signature solution-dyed yarns, the result of an abiding partnership between the brand and Bjork’s upholstery workshop. Bjork also created the custom color-blocked ottomans, made completely new cushions for three chic lines of outdoor furnishings—Brown Jordan, Dedon and Cane-line—and even fashioned round ball pillows inspired by vintage Palm Springs. “They’re literally just for fun,” says Martin. “You can throw them at your friends during the party.”



J. Ryan Duffey and Jeremy Griffin, J. Ryan Duffey Architect Inc.

This exactingly engineered stick-frame, brick-clad structure was the first commercial venture for J. Ryan Duffey’s eponymous, 4-year-old Buckhead practice. But it is undoubtedly this well-admired architect’s experience with residential design—particularly his mindfulness about where furniture is placed within a space—that has imbued it with such unquestionable charm. When Duffey’s firm learned, two years in, that the penthouse would become a showhouse, he was delighted to upgrade some of its interior features; though the residence still features a wallet-friendly, simplistic trim package, Duffey worked in tandem with designer Melanie Davis to select striking finishes like the local LG Hausys Viatera quartz countertops, richly finished oak floors reclaimed from a textile mill, progressively styled Circa Lighting fixtures, Porcelanosa tiles and mixed metal hardware (white bronze, light bronze, oil-rubbed bronze) seen throughout.

Landscape Architecture

Lucinda Bray and Tyne Martinez, Floralis Garden Design & Landscape Architecture

Endeavoring to achieve a sense of place despite the design site’s unusual location (perched upon the roof of Serenbe’s Textile Lofts), “it was important to establish the feeling of outdoor ‘rooms’—mimicking the architecture inside the penthouse, but also carrying that sense of containment past the walls and into the open air,” explains landscape architect Lucinda Bray, who worked alongside design partner Tyne Martinez to create a cohesive, but multifaceted scheme along the roof’s noticeably sprawling square footage. Transforming a formerly utilitarian-looking plane are artificial turf and lush container plantings of ferns, succulents and more that soften the lines of the surrounding hardscape. The ground-floor courtyard also received the duo’s expertise—via simple teak furnishings and a custom copper spa. Care of Diamond Spas, the water element is more than accommodating of Mother Nature; it will patina marvelously.



Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles: AH&L’S BEST OF NOVEMBER



1. Get a head start on holiday shopping at the Indie Craft Experience Holiday Shopping Spectacular, held at the Georgia Freight Depot. The two-day event will feature art and gifts from 175 crafters, artists and makers from the Southeast and across the country, as well as music by DJ Zano and a variety of fare from local food vendors. The first 250 guests each day will also receive a gift bag. Tickets $5. November 19–20;

2. Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles celebrates the holiday season with the 2016 Home for the Holidays Designer Showhouse. Showcasing the work of some of the region’s most esteemed design-industry talents, this year’s showhouse, a renovation project off Peachtree Battle Avenue in Buckhead, is not to be missed. Proceeds benefit Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Bring an unwrapped toy for a patient at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta during opening weekend (Nov. 18-20) and receive $3 off of your ticket. November 18–December 11;

3. Join ASID Georgia and Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles for Design & Wine Stroll at The Shops Buckhead Atlanta. Shop the latest in furniture, kitchens, baths, technology and home accessories while touring participating showrooms and enjoying wine and light bites. Guests will also receive a “Design Passport” to get stamped at each showroom for a chance win high-end raffle prizes. November 3;

4. Ring in the season at Atlanta Botanical Garden’s annual holiday tradition, Garden Lights, Holiday Nights, featuring millions of dazzling LED lights. Explore favorites such as the Orchestral Orbs, Glittering Galaxy and Radiant Rainforest, as well as the new Walk of Flames and the freshly expanded Tunnel of Light. November 12–January 7;

5. The Art Farm at Serenbe welcomes the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to its Art Over Dinner series, a sequence of intimate gatherings with creative figures and organizations that creates a dialogue around arts and culture. The evening will feature dinner provided by Homespun, and wine from The Farmhouse at Serenbe and live music by John Burke. Tickets are $85 each and limited to 40 guests. November 20;

ODYSSEY At Kennesaw State University- Art Over Dinner: Art to End Slavery

By: Kennith Everett

Atlanta’s new home for the sexually exploited

The sky opened up and rain flooded the highway as I made the 2-hour commute to this town within a town, Serenbe. It was only 4 p.m., on Sunday, September 18, and the rain seemed like it would never end. The GPS said I was only thirty minutes away when I lost all cell service and I was lucky enough to have taken screen-shots of the directions before losing service. The weather was relentless and nothing seemed to be going the way I had intended. A small house to my left, a stop sign, another house to the right, desolate, is the word that came to mind as a brief panic overcame my body. It was not until I saw the immaculate sign stating “Serenbe” that the rain ceased and all worry seemingly fled my body. The sun broke through the clouds and shined down on the farmlands, homes and apartment buildings that were oddly in the actual “middle of nowhere.” This not-so-quaint city had a presence that enveloped my inhibitions and welcomed me with the warmth of the elements. I was more than prepared to accomplish my mission with all the confidence I could muster.

“You must be Kennith,” said the greater at the door. “I’m Kirstin Brown, we spoke on the phone!”

I read somewhere that smiling makes people think that you know what you’re doing but smiling too much makes them think you are crazy. It’s almost definite that I smiled for a few seconds too long before I finally fumbled over my equipment bags and extended my hand with slightly too much force- crazy, she thinks I’m crazy.

Serenbe hosted the prelude to “Art Over Dinner,” in their Bosch Experience Center where guests were able to enjoy cocktails. The night was about artistic enrichment and the rain decided to once again paint the streets with its presence. In a moment that seemed too coordinated, Serenbe’s Art Farm Director, Erin Bernhardt, gathered everyone’s attention and introduced who they were hosting for the night’s “Art Over Dinner,” BeLoved Atlanta. Amelia Quinn, founder and president of BeLoved, and Michelle Hoeft, program director, gave a brief introduction to the charity, and shortly after, everyone was directed to drive to the farmhouse for dinner.


“The purpose of Art Over Dinner is to engage people in art,” said Bernhardt, “and to meet people where they are, with this delicious meal, and this beautiful location and to meet artists in and intimate way because art can be intimidating.”

The rain was persistent and everyone tried their best to avoid the potential saturation but the inevitable, ironically enough, is unavoidable.

“I usually like for guests to sit next to people they don’t know, so let’s try to make this enriching guys,” said Erin.

The dinner was outdoors underneath a covered deck area so people tried to get settled but at the same time tried to avoid the rain. Waiters began serving appetizers and the social has begun. Guests began interacting with each other and it was almost hard to believe that these people had only met for the first time less than an hour ago.

“BeLoved Atlanta creates a community of restoration for women who have been commercially sexually exploited. We accomplish this through asking women to commit to two years in our residential home and 3-phase program,” read the back of the menus.

The statistics were personally alarming, according Amelia and Michelle, “Atlanta is the number 1 city in the United States with highest sex economy income of $290 million per year.” When looking around me then only question I could formulate was “but how are these people supposed to be able to help.”

I took my seat right next to Quinn so I could ask her questions as they came because I was sure as the dinner progressed I would have many.

We began light conversation about the legal system and the women that Amelia and her facility now provides for.

“In essence we’re arresting the wrong people,” said Quinn. “Where the woman is usually a victim and we’re not catching the pimps we’re not catching the Johns.”

The statistic that contextually supports her statement is listed on Beloved Atlanta’s website: “87 percent of women in the sex industry said they wanted to escape, but had no other means for survival.” The women the BeLoved Atlanta helps were victims of these men that unfortunately never get to see a day in court because they hide in the shadows and the women that they victimize are the ones that get arrested and come right back because their livelihood is contingent on the mercy of their pimp.


Quinn and Hoeft gave a presentation to the guests of the dinner and everyone seemed very moved by the information that the charity provided for them about the statistics. A question that revisited my mind was “how does this dinner help the cause?” “I think a huge part of our work is advocacy,” said Amelia Quinn. “To get people in the community aware of what this issue is and passionate about making a difference. So being at an event like this where you sit at a table get to know us a little but also get to know the issue better hopefully will spurt you on to telling other people about it and seeing what you can do to help”

“Truthfully, I feel sad they can only take care of four women at this point and time,” said Art Over Dinner guest Allen Biel. “When you start thinking about what you see off of Fulton industrial Blvd., what you see off of certain areas in the city, I guess what is now Metropolitan Avenue, it’s unbelievable that this is the only organization that does long-term care for these women and the fact that it’s only four women- that’s like winning the lottery, that’s the most eye opening thing about this entire night.”

The dinner accomplished something that, to me, means more than the expendable finances of a few patrons, it gave each and every guest perspective. There were guests ready to volunteer their time and tell everyone they could about BeLoved Atlanta because of Serenbe’s Art Over Dinner which brought a level of enrichment that only an intimate dinner, on a rainy night, in the virtual middle-of-nowhere, with no cell service could achieve.

So what can you do?

Just donate a moment of your time to volunteer to BeLoved Atlanta or aid in finding a way to help more women then the four that they can care for currently. Any step toward helping is a step in the right direction.

The First 5x10 at the Art Farm

This past Spring we decided to try something new on the Art Farm. That’s what Serenbe and the Art Farm are all about – finding innovative ways to engage people in nature and culture. We worked with our friends at Creative Visions to host a pitch party for creative activists in metro Atlanta. The result could not have been more inspiring! Our co-curator for the event was local artist Ross Boone. He shares the story below…

Could you ever use inspiration from other creative activists? Are you scraping to get more exposure to people that can help make your mission happen? Or are you just curious to see what creative do-gooders are up to?

Those are what I was hoping for when the Art Farm at Serenbe organized its first “5x10”. Erin Bernhardt and Monica Olsen (both from the Art Farm and the Creative Visions Creative Activist Network), and I brought together our networks of people doing amazing things around Georgia. We wanted to give them a platform from which to project their mission to the audience and therefore help more of the world hear it.

We mingled on the Art Farm deck for a while after people arrived and then sat down, looking out from the opened up shipping containers to listen to the presenters. The backdrop was the quaint Art Farm house and the artist cottages were in view, only a stone’s throw away. Fields and forests surrounded us and the weather was beautiful. What better way to meet and hear inspiring people, than in the inspiring beauty of Serenbe.

To start it all off, Three Taverns Brewery provided sumptuous beer, and told the inspiring story of how they got started, and how they have grown to notable esteem right here in Atlanta (Decatur, to be specific).

Then each of ten presenters spent 5 minutes telling the audience what they are doing to change the world and how we can help them keep doing it.

Among the presenters were brilliant, motivated people doing things like, building a mobile app that connect artists to clients (Prtnr), and developing art to go on hospital beds (Joi Boards). We heard from an organization that brings artists together with underserved students via other non-profit partners to teach them how to make their own art (Paint Love). And we heard from several documentary filmmakers, one of them trying to bring light to refugees fleeing through Morocco (called “The Burning”).

A creative chant was even performed for the “Tip Your Artist” movement. She handed out envelopes and encouraged us to put money in them and give them to artists as a tip whenever we leave an art gallery.

As the presentations wrapped up, it was cool to watch people go over to talk to people they knew they could help, or for whom they knew a helpful connection. And I think several connections and collaborations have come from it.

In fact, now I’m helping one of the presenters who is working on behalf of Adobe to teach students to fight for education equality with their art! If you want to jump on board with this too let us know.

And we have will be doing more 5x10’s in 2017 so if you’re interested, please reach out. We will pick 10 people each time, whose story we think needs to be told. And I hope yours will be among them.

Let’s keep helping each other make the world a better place.

Ross Boone is a blogger, author, and illustrator living in Decatur, Ga. You can see his work at


Earlier this year we hosted a Pitch Party for creative activists with our friends at the Creative Visions Foundation. They're based on the beach in Malibu, CA and have made their Southeastern home here at Serenbe. Isabella Alexander was one of the artists who shared her passion project. Many people in the crowd wanted to know how they could help and we're so glad to learn that she has been awarded a service grant from Creative Visions to help bring this important film to life. She was also just featured on Public Radio International! Here's a guest post from Isabella... 


As an anthropologist, I've spent many years living in the makeshift camps that have housed hundreds of thousands of African migrants and refugees awaiting a chance to cross to a better tomorrow – men, women, and children who live in desperate conditions before attempting to scale the treacherous ring of razor-wire fences that separate Morocco from the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. These Spanish enclaves bring Europe within the confines of the African continent. They also position Morocco as the primary crossing point for African migrants and refugees who are prepared to risk it all.

A ring of three 20-foot high razor-wire fences separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla and are under constant surveillance by both Moroccan and European border guards. (Isabella Alexander)

A ring of three 20-foot high razor-wire fences separate Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla and are under constant surveillance by both Moroccan and European border guards. (Isabella Alexander)

A group of boys sleep on the ground in their makeshift forest camp in northern Morocco. In the distance, they see Spain. (Isabella Alexander)

A group of boys sleep on the ground in their makeshift forest camp in northern Morocco. In the distance, they see Spain. (Isabella Alexander)

For the first time this summer, I returned to these hidden forest camps as not only an anthropologist, but as a documentary filmmaker. I returned with a camera and a goal to bring a different kind of story home with me. I knew that through film I would be able to access broader audiences and give some of the individuals who are trapped at the core of the current Migrant & Refugee Crisis a chance to tell you their stories in their own words. But what I didn’t know was how my camera would open up new depths for me as a researcher, too.

With no resources at hand, daily life in northern Morocco’s makeshift forest camps centers on basic survival. (Isabella Alexander)

With no resources at hand, daily life in northern Morocco’s makeshift forest camps centers on basic survival. (Isabella Alexander)

With no resources at hand, daily life in northern Morocco’s makeshift forest camps centers on basic survival. (Isabella Alexander)

With no resources at hand, daily life in northern Morocco’s makeshift forest camps centers on basic survival. (Isabella Alexander)

The individuals who became the central characters of my film – women like Yasmine and boys like Beni – were eager to have the chance to tell their stories, to share their journeys, and to give narrative to an unseen crisis that is unfolding on the other side of the EU border in Morocco. What came as the biggest surprise to me was that they were even more open with you – their future audience – than they had been with me. I arrived to Morocco concerned about how my camera would make it more difficult for me, as the anthropologist, to camouflage myself in the makeshift camps that I had spent so much time in, observing the daily struggles of those who are living there. But I left Morocco confident that the camera presented an opportunity that my pen and paper had not. It presented the opportunity for the migrants and refugees to become their own storytellers.

Beni, 14, is one of thousands currently living hidden in the forests surrounding Morocco’s Spanish enclaves and waiting to attempt his chance at The Crossing. (Isabella Alexander)

Beni, 14, is one of thousands currently living hidden in the forests surrounding Morocco’s Spanish enclaves and waiting to attempt his chance at The Crossing. (Isabella Alexander)

“In the Congo,” Beni explained to me, “you grow up thinking about escape. When I was little, no one asked me what I wanted to become. They asked me where I wanted to go.” At only 14 years old, Beni emerged as one of our most talented and unlikely storytellers, giving voice to a harrowing, compelling, and beautiful story that will be told on screen in The Burning: An Untold Story from the Other Side of the Migrant Crisis.

Beni, 14, and two of his “brothers” discuss their plans for The Crossing, which is trained for much like a military mission. (Isabella Alexander)

Beni, 14, and two of his “brothers” discuss their plans for The Crossing, which is trained for much like a military mission. (Isabella Alexander)

Beni sleeps on a blanket in the forest, he eats what he can scavenge from trashcans in the town at the base of the mountain, and he is not alone. He is one of thousands of young men and boys who camp at the southernmost border to Europe, awaiting their chance at The Crossing. His camp is all but impossible to find without a guide, and he wants it that way. They change location every few weeks, pushing further and further into the woods, further and further from the town below. “The longer we have to walk past the last road, the longer the police have to run after us,” he said, explaining how the weekly raids on their camp, which always result in bruised and bloodied bodies, drive their movement. “The police don’t like to run this far.” It is a tireless attempt to evade the Spanish-funded Moroccan forces who are stationed around the mountain.

Beni, 14, helps to prepare his brotherhood’s one meal of the day with food they have salvaged from the trash. (Isabella Alexander)

Beni, 14, helps to prepare his brotherhood’s one meal of the day with food they have salvaged from the trash. (Isabella Alexander)

As I had witnessed in my previous visits  – and as bandaged men and boys scattered around me were evidence of  – raiding officers target the hands, feet, arms and legs of those they capture. “You can’t climb without your limbs,” Beni explained. The police know that these forest camps are home to migrants and refugees preparing for The Crossing, and like Beni, they also know that crossing requires strength, agility, and the use of one’s feet. “We used to sleep under tents, but tents make us easier to find, so now we don’t bother building them.” While staying in the encampments across the valley on Mount Gourougou in 2014, I had seen migrants and refugees construct these “tents”    – pieces of repurposed plastic bags secured over bent tree limbs with “rope” made from old T-shirts. I had also seen how routinely their tents were burned to the ground in weekly police raids. I have countless photographs of blue plastic melting over the few possessions that boys like Beni had to their name  – a blanket, a tattered pair of pants, and if they hadn’t already been burned, a photograph or two of their parents or younger siblings left back home.

Dikembe, 25, is the elder in the Congolese camp, making him the leader. Among his many duties, helping his “brothers” train for The Crossing weighs on him the heaviest. (Isabella Alexander)

Dikembe, 25, is the elder in the Congolese camp, making him the leader. Among his many duties, helping his “brothers” train for The Crossing weighs on him the heaviest. (Isabella Alexander)

The mountainside is dotted with hidden camps, visible only when you catch a hint of sunlight reflecting off of blue plastic or see the flickering of small bonfires between the shadows of trees at night. Each “brotherhood,” as they call them, is formed along lines of nationality  – the Senegalese in one camp, the Malians, the Cote D’Ivoirians, the Nigerians, and the Congolese in others. The chief of Beni’s camp, a man named Dikembe, has a generous nature and a soft voice. He explained how he chose to stop building tents after their last move further up the mountainside. “Now, more than half of us in the Congolese camp are children  –  boys only 13 or 14 years old, like Bambino,” he said, nodding his head affectionately toward Beni. “I have to make a greater effort to protect them.” At 25, Dikembe is an elder among his brotherhood, and he gained his status of chief through his age, his resourcefulness, and the knowledge he acquired in his impressive number of attempted crossings. “Every time you try to cross, you learn something new. You test your will.” It takes both practice and strength to master the physically grueling feat of crossing, and as Dikembe believes, “it takes God on your side.”

As the sun sinks lower in the sky and the fire begins crackling, I look toward Beni  –  small, but strong. He is young and tired and hungry and hopeful. In training, I have seen him run quickly, his eyes always fixed on the path in front of him. He runs without fear. Dikembe tells me, “Bambino has God on his side.”

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