Music & Refugees: Improving Lives in the State of Uncertainty

By: Daniel Pines

An Introduction to the World of the Refugees

            Almost two years ago I took a trip to Greece with three of my college friends. While many were headed to beach destinations along the Mediterranean coast, our cohort arrived with a different purpose. We had come to volunteer with humanitarian organizations in Thessaloniki, to offer support and better the livelihood of asylum seekers and other victims of the Syrian refugee crisis.

            Refugees are defined as people who are forced to leave their country for fear of violence or persecution as a result of their ethnicity, religion, or political views.  By the end of 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) recognized the existence of 25.4 million refugees internationally, more than half of which were under the age of 18.

            In September of 2015, the world was shocked by the discovery of a drowned Syrian boy, 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up along a Turkish beach. The tragedy of the poor boy’s fate sparked a global awareness of the Syrian refugee crisis as an immense and intractable issue.

            By this time, the flood of asylum seekers entering Europe was already reaching its peak. Years of civil war in Syria, as well as the onslaught and advancement of the Islamic State across vast regions of the Levant sent millions of people fleeing for their lives. Thousands of refugees were arriving on the shores of Greece every day, smuggled in dangerously overcrowded dinghies in an effort to avoid Greek and Turkish authorities. Many of the boats capsized during their journey, and those whose occupants made it safely to shore were ushered into refugee camps: often ill-equipped facilities where migrants would be held for an indeterminable amount of time. While the mass migration of refugees became a humanitarian catastrophe, local governments, aid organizations, and the international community struggled to agree upon or implement any kind of long-term solution.

            Interested in global politics and passionate about humanitarian affairs, my friends and I were spurred into action. We contacted local organizations, planned our trip, and set off to help those caught in the worst of circumstances.

The Human Side of Humanitarianism

            As a typical volunteer, I would have spent my entire few weeks in Greece like my team and I spent our first couple days – organizing donations, or salvaging supplies from a refugee camp that had recently been abandoned. But as a musician, I was asked to work at a placement with a refugee camp in the nearby town of Serres instead.

            In Serres, I worked with Lifting Hands International, an American NGO that is solely responsible for providing supplies, support, and daily classes to the hundreds of people held in the local refugee camp.

            The refugees in the Serres camp are almost entirely Yazidi, an ancient ethno-religious minority group from the Shingal region of Iraq, and the victims of a brutal genocide carried out by the Islamic State in 2014. 

            For two weeks I ran daily music classes, teaching and playing songs with the kids on guitar, piano, and ukulele. Some of them were adamant about playing. One of the students, who called himself Ronaldo (a common nickname taken up by Yazidi children, in honor of the Spanish soccer star, Christiana Ronaldo), adored the music of Michael Jackson and played Billie Jean incessantly on a battery-charged electric piano. Another boy was infatuated with Kurdish hip-hop and was determined to become a rapper.

            While a few of my students were enthralled with the classes, many were there to socialize with fellow students or to stave off the boredom that encompassed so much of their daily lives in the camps. With no opportunities to attend school, the classes LHI offered were some of the only opportunities the refugees had to access any kind of anormal life.

            Outside of the scheduled classes, music was a centerpiece of life in the camp community. The Yazidis loved to sing and would frequently break out into song. One of the tunes I heard most often was a lament sung in Kurmanji, their native language. In those moments, the refugees’ rugged façade of survival gave way, as if this song was their testimony, their tribute, to the pain and struggle they had endured as a people and a community.

            They also had a strong love for popular music, and I was amused to discover their particular adoration for Celine Dion and Justin Bieber.

            Every other Saturday, LHI would put on a festival of events and activities, headlined by a Yazidi talent show. Every time, there were at least two or three musical performances, mainstays of a tradition that brought together culture and community to fill the void created by daily refugee life.

            Another LHI volunteer (who I would later meet at McGill University) had somehow managed to raise enough money to buy an assortment of guitars and ukuleles, as well as six saz. The saz, a middle-eastern instrument that Westerners might mistake for a bouzouki, was a hit amongst the Yazidi men.  They would play the saz for hours as they sat amongst each other, joking and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The men loved the saz so much that we began to loan them them out, keeping careful track of who borrowed them, to ensure that no one ran off with one of the instruments for good.

            Farid was one of the men who loved to play the saz. I was honored when he asked to teach me a few of his favorite songs, and we quickly became friends. He also spoke a little bit of English; when I asked him about the meaning of the Kurmanji lyrics, he explained to me that the song had been written to be sung by Kurdish fighters, who were on their way to wage war against the Islamic State. Once again, I was awestruck. Music could not have meant more to a people who had endured so much.

            As I came to terms with the gravity of the situation in Greece, I spent a lot of time thinking about the harsh reality of refugee life. As I spent time there, I became aware of the impact that musicians, teachers, and social workers could have, and how much their skills could improve the quality of life for the people in these camps. Perhaps we as individuals cannot solve the refugee crisis. But this limitation does not lessen the impacts that our actions as musicians can have, or the degree to which such awful circumstances can be improved.

An Expert’s Perspective

            To learn more about the refugee crisis, and how music and the arts can make an impact on the lives of those caught between borders, I spoke to Katelyn Ray.

            Katelyn and I worked together with Lifting Hands International in 2017. Since then, she has worked tirelessly in four different refugee camps around the world. She has a background in social work, and is now a program coordinator for Help International, another humanitarian NGO that offers aid and support to refugees and other people in crises around the world.

            Katelyn has worked most recently at the infamous Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The situation she describes to me is very different from the one I remember from Serres.

            “It’s so chaotic,” she tells me, “it’s one of the most notorious camps in Greece. It’s meant for 2,000 people, but recently there’s been around 9,000 people crammed in there. There’s a three-hour wait every morning just for people to get breakfast. There’s just not enough for everybody.”

            This was a stark contrast from what I remembered of the camp in Serres. With around 400 refugees there at the time, we were able to distribute food once a week, in amounts that were proportional to the sizes of the families they were given to.

            At its peak in 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis had thousands of people arriving on the shores of Greece every day, most of them via overcrowded dinghies from Turkey. After making a deal with the European Union, Turkey agreed to staunch the flow of asylum seekers flooding into Europe. Since then, the rates of asylum seekers arriving in Greece have fallen significantly. But while people are arriving at the camps more slowly, they are not leaving them any faster.

            “Refugees are usually in Moria for six months to a year,” Katelyn tells me, “and when they do get to leave, ninety-nine percent of the time they’re headed to another camp in Greece.”

            Katelyn highlights one of the biggest issues surrounding the refugee crisis: refugees like those in Greece can only be released once they have been granted asylum and accepted by another country. Until then, there is nowhere for them to go but to other, more established refugee camps. To make matters worse, many developed countries are closing, rather than opening, their borders to asylum seekers. The rise of xenophobia and ethno-nationalism in the Global North has fueled the ascension of populist leaders who espouse that their countries will be improved by the exclusion of “other” peoples. As chants like “build the wall” echo around the world, the prospect of a long-term solution to the refugee crisis becomes even more dismal.

            Meanwhile, the lives of the refugees themselves are left in limbo. Often confined to their camps, refugees are unable to work or go to school. This is one of the reasons that the work of groups like Lifting Hands International is so important. On top of providing essentials such as food, clothes, and hygiene products, such organizations also provide opportunities for refugees to live with a greater sense of dignity and purpose.

            “People think that all refugees need are food, shelter, and supplies,” Katelyn says, “[refugees] are just like you and me…they need to socialize, they need to work…we can’t change your situation, but we can treat you like a human being.”

            In Serres, LHI provides a whole host of daily classes, including music, dance, and trauma-informed yoga. Lifting Hands also offers a variety of language classes, including English, Spanish, and German, which can be very useful in preparing refugees for a future in Europe, or elsewhere.

            “It’s amazing to see the difference between those who do and don’t have access to those kinds of classes,” Katelyn says. “They feel like they accomplished something…it’s almost therapeutic [for them] to even have a schedule.”

            For many refugees, the classes are far more than just a creative outlet. Most asylum seekers are fleeing from some sort of war or conflict. Many of them have lost family members and loved ones. As victims of ethnic genocide, many of the Yazidis in Serres experienced unimaginable trauma. And unfortunately, as Katelyn tells me, the traumatic events do not always stop with the arrival at a refugee camp.

            “There’s the trauma that [the refugees] come with, and then there’s the trauma they can develop,” she says.

            Among its other issues, the Moria camp has had a troubled history of violence within its walls, often the result of ethnic divisions and conflict. Whether situations like this arise depend largely on the circumstances of the camp itself, such as its population, the availability of supplies, and the number of humanitarian staff on hand. But in camps like Moria that are consistently overwhelmed, situations can deteriorate quickly.

            This highlights another difference between the Moria and Serres camps. In addition to having their needs met on a consistent basis, the residents of the Serres camp are almost entirely Yazidi. This cultural homogeneity of having a Yazidi camp allows for greater security and a deeper sense of community than the Yazidis might encounter in another camp. This in turn means more trust between the residents and the NGO’s that work with them.

            The fruits of this dynamic were evident in Serres where, during a seasonal clothing distribution in 2017, we were able to convert our supply warehouse into a makeshift “store,” in which the Yazidis could choose and even try on their clothes. This was a novel and almost unheard of accomplishment in a Greek refugee camp. It also contrasted a great deal with camp Moria, where residents had set two buildings on fire during protests over poor living conditions just a week prior.

The Potential for Change

            As we catch up on the past couple years, Katelyn tells me about all the places she has worked since we met in Serres: Nepal, Uganda, and two other refugee camps in Greece. Her dedication to humanitarian work is awesome in the truest sense of the word, and I am nothing short of amazed at her resilience and persistence at providing aid and optimism in even the worst conditions imaginable

            “There’s so much more that people can offer, they just don’t know how,” she says, “and I’m just one human! Imagine if all my favorite people got on board and were like, ‘yeah we’re gonna help refugees too!’ Imagine how much more of a difference we could make? And not just in terms of actually doing things, but spreading awareness, and changing peoples’ mindsets about refugees.”

            It is a world well worth thinking about. Katelyn also reminds me that, as musicians, artists, and other people of influence, we have a rare opportunity, perhaps even an obligation to lift people up and improve their lives in whatever way we can. In Greece, music became a way to connect with people, even when we shared no common language. At home, the lyrics in songs and the words echoing over crowds carry the power to set discourse and alter dialogue.

            “People are given talents for a reason,” Katelyn said, “what any human being has to offer can mean so much more than you think it will…but something so small could have really big implications in [other peoples’] lives. And we forget that because we’re so focused on ‘oh, we want to change everything’. And that’s just not the approach we can have with the refugee crisis anymore…we have to start small.”

Hindsight, and the Future of the Refugee Regime

            My time with the Yazidis was brief by any standard, but long enough to give me a rare glimpse into an experience shared by millions of asylum seekers around the world. While I hope that I was able to make some kind of positive impact in their lives, I cannot deny that, ultimately, it was the Yazidis who impacted mine. What struck me most were not the cultural differences or even the UN reports of all the awful things that refugees too often experience. What awed me more than anything was the simple humanity of the people I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with, and their desire to share their humanity with someone who cares.

            Looking back now, I realize that I had no idea what to expect as I left my comfortable home in Canada and entered the world of refugees. I had watched news reports, read countless articles, and somehow still felt that I could not properly comprehend the magnitude of the challenges our team faced, or how we would overcome them. As I worked and spoke with people who had dedicated years of their lives to confronting the refugee crisis head-on, I came to understand that perhaps this is the nature of the refugee crisis and humanitarian work in general.

            I learned two important things during my time in Greece. First, that human beings are incredibly resilient, and that with the right support, communities of people are capable of overcoming the most horrific experiences imaginable. Second, I learned that the vital work that humanitarian organizations do can only, at best, maintain or improve the status quo. The work that we did at LHI was meaningful and vital for the survival and wellbeing of the people we supported. But nothing we did would solve the problem.

            Until individual governments volunteer to accept and welcome refugees into their borders, this crisis will not end. Public attention on the issue may fade, but the suffering of the refugees—without out the autonomy, security, or rehabilitation that they desperately need—will remain constant. Until we, as a global society, decide that all human lives are worth protecting, the lives of refugees will remain in limbo.

            But like Katelyn said, we have to start small.


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