Music and art bring refugee, Lebanese children together

The project emphasises music and arts as tools for injecting peace and bridging gaps caused by prejudice and misconception.
Friday 14/12/2018
Restoring divides. May Nasr and the children choir perform at AUB auditorium (Partners Lebanon)
Restoring divides. May Nasr and the children choir perform at AUB auditorium (Partners Lebanon)

BEIRUT - Though a bit nervous, Syrian refugee Mohamad Korabi, 12, had a big smile and his eyes were sparkling with joy as he prepared to go on stage for the first time before a packed auditorium at the American University of Beirut.

He was among a 30-child choir performing in a pilot project — The Children’s Choir: Music & Arts for Peace and Social Inclusion — organised by the Lebanese branch of Partners, a global peace-building NGO.

The project involving Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian refugees along with disadvantaged Lebanese children emphasises music and arts as tools for injecting peace and bridging gaps caused by prejudice and misconception, said Partners Lebanon Director May Nasr.

“We infuse music and arts programming with conflict mediation tools to restore social divides,” Nasr said. “We also seek to cultivate a sense of unity and belonging, starting with children of Lebanese communities, so they may pass this sense of cohesion on to future generations.”

Nasr said the project was inspired by local challenges, including communal divisions lingering from the civil war that were aggravated by the Syrian refugee crisis.

“We did some research and it showed us that in public schools where Lebanese children come across Syrians who attend a special afternoon shift, there is a lot of xenophobia, tragic messages are being exchanged, messages of hatred and prejudgment and a lot of bullying,” Nasr said. “We thought that… bringing these children together in a choir could be a way to narrow the gap.”

One hundred children aged 8-16 living in Bourj Hammoud, an impoverished Beirut neighbourhood and home for many refugees, were selected for the choir. Training started in April with the help of experts.

“We have kids with wonderful voices and others with no voice whatsoever but they are so enthusiastic and passionate about singing that we could not say no to them. We’re including everybody and have managed to bring up the good voices higher than the bad ones,” Nasr said.

Nasr recalled that on the first day of training, which takes place every Saturday, an intimidated Syrian boy approached her. “He told me: ‘Miss, how are we going to sing with the other kids? They bully us on the street. They pick us up and beat us.’

“However, when they started singing the Lebanese folk songs the kids were looking at each other with surprise, thinking how come the others knew them,” she said.

“The children are so receptive. They are like sponges. You give them something good and they take it. You give them something bad and they turn out to be rogue and villains,” Nasr said.

“Imagine (Lebanese diva) Fairuz bringing them all together. They hated each other theoretically but from the very first day they came out communicating and playing together.”

In parallel to the activities with the children, their mothers receive art sessions that introduce them to a healthy lifestyle contributing to a better quality of life at home.

“We have an expert giving them psycho-corporal art therapy,” Nasr said. “She teaches them basic yoga exercises, holistic thinking and feeling, expression and stress management — basically to let it out. One woman said to me: ‘I never knew how much I needed this. I was not aware that I needed time for myself.’”

Led by Nasr, herself a singer and guitar player, Korabi and his choir colleagues received a standing ovation for interpreting songs by Lebanese icons such as Fairuz, Zaki Nassif and Ahmad Kaabour.

“I love Fairuz and I like to sing her songs. I hope that one day I can make it to ‘The Voice’ platform,” Korabi said. “I have made many friends among the children of the choir and it was amazing to sing together.”

Korabi’s enthusiasm was shared by other children.

“I am so happy to be in the choir,” said 11-year-old Iraqi refugee Mariam Saad. “I made lots of friends and became very close with those who accepted me. Those who did not, it is their problem.”

Lebanese Antonio Naddaf, 12, said: “The choir gave me more self-confidence as well as the opportunity to meet new people. We trained every Saturday for the past two months. I did make friends. We have many things in common. I had no problem with Syrians and Iraqis. We spent a lot of time together. We sang and played.”

Partners Lebanon, a member of the Partners Global Network of 22 independent peace-building and conflict-mediation centres globally, depends on fundraising and support by donor organisations.

“Our vision is to turn the project into a sustainable programme because, the more children you reach out to, the more effect you are making,” Nasr said, adding that a larger fundraising concert involving all 100 children of the choir was planned for next year.