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Music

Musicians in Exile: The group uniting refugees via song

Music gives refugees an opportunity to tell their story or to send a message that they couldn’t back in their home countries. Musicians in Exile is a group that enables refugees to continue with their passion for music, providing them with instruments as well as a support system.

Musicians in Exile is a project based in the Govan area of Glasgow, designed to bring together refugees and asylum seekers who can play music but no longer have contact with other musicians or access to instruments.

Founded in 2018 by award-winning musician Paul MacAlindin, who had already received worldwide acclaim for establishing the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, it’s a way of helping all involved deal with “the huge culture shock” of arriving in an unfamiliar place, often after escaping war or other trauma.

This summer, as part of the Refugee Festival Scotland, the group released their first song. Written during lockdown and titled Always on the Move, it “speaks to our flight from danger, constant instability and hopes of settling in a new home”, they say. Two of the members of Musicians in Exile, singer and rapper Yvette and setar player Aref, share their stories and describe what the project means to them.

Aref: I left my country Iran because I wanted to be a normal musician, I didn’t want to be censored anymore and have other people deciding whether I can release a song or not. I didn’t want to have to worry about being punished. I play an Irani instrument called the setar, which is different to the Indian one the sitar. It’s a stringed instrument, wooden made. In the past it used to have three strings but now it has four.

I came to the UK in 2018 and applied for asylum, then got my refugee status after a few months. I now work as a destitution advisor at the Scottish Refugee Council in Glasgow.

Glasgow is so diverse and so active, in terms of art and music. The first reaction I had to the city and its vibe was when I was looking at the huge poster in the city centre which says People Make Glasgow. For me, going through all the difficulties I went through for years, all the bad experiences, it gave me a very positive feeling, a feeling of safety and security. I know now that people really do make Glasgow. I like how here in Scotland they don’t call us “refugees”, they call us “new Scots”.

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It was when I was volunteering at the launch event for the Refugee Festival Scotland in 2018 that I met Paul, who was distributing flyers for Musicians in Exile. I said, “I’m a musician, I would like to get involved.” He said, “Yes – join us in Govan on Tuesday.”

Imagine yourself as a musician who has come here seeking sanctuary, and you have no instruments with you, no family, no friends, and you rehearse with no-one. And then there is a group that you can get into making music with. If you don’t have an instrument, you can be given a new instrument. If you don’t have language skills, you can communicate through your music. After a period of effort, you can perform in public and people can come and listen to you. You can use this opportunity to tell your story or send a message that you couldn’t or weren’t allowed to share back home. I would say it’s lifesaving.

Yvette: I came to the UK in 2014 aged 16 under a dependent visa and lived in Worthing with my mother and my brother. I was at college, but when my mum lost her job, everything was compromised. I ended up seeking asylum in 2019. As an asylum seeker I’m not allowed to work. I can’t afford to go to uni. After I came out as gay my family disowned me.

In the middle of the pandemic the Home Office sent me to live at a hotel in Glasgow. I didn’t even know what Glasgow was, I was scared. It turns out it was the best thing the Home Office has ever done for me. The community in Glasgow is amazing. People accept me for who I am more than my family ever did. Even during the pandemic, I felt like, wow, I’m at home.

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I always did music back home in Zimbabwe; I’ve sung since I was a child but usually in the church choir. Now I rap and I sing about everything, it doesn’t have to be just Christian songs. In September 2020 a friend introduced me to Musicians in Exile, and since then life has just been flowing better. I’m still an asylum seeker, but I know that every Tuesday we’re going to make some music, and I’m going to forget all about that stress. They provided me with an iPad to do my music. They say that if I need internet, anything I need, they’re there for me.

Because of lockdown we could only meet on Zoom at first – we only managed to all meet face to face for the first time at the beginning of July this year. But the sense of community and connection was still really strong. We are all from different countries, different cultures, different languages. But with the music it’s like we’re speaking the same language. We’ll hopefully be able to do our first live performances later in the year and I’m excited.

I have big dreams for my music. I want to become a musician that people can listen to and relate to. I want to write music that speaks truth. My hero is Beyoncé.

At the same time, I really want to go to uni and get my degree and know all the hard work I’ve done so far is not vain. At some point I want to get into humanitarian work, to get involved in projects that help people settling into Glasgow, the same way others were able to help me.

Find out more about Musicians in Exile and how to get in touch at glasgowbarons.com

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