Singing our lives: the ground-breaking creative process bringing together singers and musicians from refugee, migrant and local UK backgrounds

Singing out lives

‘Now more than ever we need to come together in unity, breaking down the imaginary walls of fear that, at times, divide our society. Music, as an expression of the soul, has a unique role to play in this endeavour and it is my hope that these songs will have a life long beyond the project as a resource for intercultural unity.’
– 
Mike Roberts, Composer, Singing Our Lives

This project is a musical collaboration between refugees and migrant groups across London, together with other choirs, of all ages and backgrounds, who want to show that singing together allows us to live together, with greater harmony and understanding. We passionately believe that this leads to a better society, which we can all share, for the greater good.

We recognise that we have a wealth of experience within our performers, that, when their stories are told, brings to life, and gives meaning to, what we are doing collectively. The sad reality of what it means to loose your home, your family and your roots is laid bare. Our hope is twofold. Those of us lucky enough not have to leave behind our lives, and seek sanctuary elsewhere, can connect in new and meaningful ways. Those who are forced to leave everything that is familiar and come to a new country, can, in telling our stories, break the silence that has been forced upon them, and know that at last someone is listening.

Here are some extracts from a conversation with Hamsa Mounif, lead singer in the The Syrian Orchestra: 

I have been in the UK about three years. I decided to leave home with my husband, but believe me its not easy to leave. It’s very hard to leave your country and your family. You leave with a broken heart. It’s not easy to escape, as your heart and memories stay there. But you have your age, and your life. You have to rebuild your life.

There is no way we can go and visit our families left behind. That is what is so hard, being cut off and worrying about their safety. They grieve for us, but they are happy for us that we are safe at last. We are so fortunate to be here, despite any difficulties in adjusting to life without family.

Q: The different culture must also take some adjusting to, as well as coping with the sadness at what you have lost. There is a Syrian proverb, which is ‘Choose a neighbour, not the house.’ What do you think about that in England? How does that work for you here?

Actually here the culture is different because people don’t know their neighbours.

I moved to a new apartment, and the landlord told me that our neighbour had just had a baby boy. I wanted to be friendly, so I bought some small clothing for the baby. I knocked on her door, and said that I had bought a present for the baby, and she took it, saying, ‘OK, thank you’ and closed the door. I was expecting her to invite me in for a coffee or a tea, and I told her that I am here, just knock the door and have a cup of tea, and she said thank you, goodbye. That’s it. Before doing that she asked me where I was from, and I told her I am Syrian.

I saw her a couple of times since, and all she said was ‘Hi’. It felt like a rejection, even though thinking about it she may have been nervous and frightened of me.

I felt very good when another lady knocked on the door and introduced herself. She is English, so it does work sometimes. I introduced myself, and we agreed to meet for a tea, and a chat. It worked then!

With other members of the orchestra I want to show people here another side of Syrian culture, our wonderful music. The music also helps us express our feelings, our sadness at what we have lost, and that is important to share as we adjust to a new life here. 

That’s why we are so happy to be partners in the Singing our Lives project. We have a chance to connect with people here, and to connect with other refugees and migrants, to see what we have in common. We hope that we bring something new to UK culture, to add to its richness, and to give thanks for your hospitality. We want to contribute to this society, but at first its all about dealing with our sadness, and our feelings of dislocation, and confusion, and then its about helping others do the same thing, as we adjust and cope with those around us for whom ‘otherness’ is threatening and negative.

Maybe over time my new neighbour will come round. Next time I knock on her door it will be to invite her to the Singing Our Lives concert. I so hope she agrees to come!

Singing Our Lives is an ongoing project by Together Productions. This Refugee Week they will be performing at the Southbank as part of a collaboration with International Organisation for Migration, Counterpoints Arts and Southbank Centre

EVENT: Singing our Lives will be performing on 23rd June at 2.30pm in the Clore Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall. Find out more here