Music key to helping Johannesburg's refugee students, says Goodwill Ambassador Hendricks

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and classical singer Barbara Hendricks recently visited New Nation school for young refugees and South Africans from disadvantaged backgrounds. She supported the Principal's efforts to make music a serious subject at school, citing its therapeutic benefits.

UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks' trip to South Africa took her to Bonne Esperance Women's Shelter for refugee women in Cape Town, where she met the latest arrival.   © Die Berger/J-A. Cavanagh

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Sept 23 (UNHCR) - The aptly named New Nation school rises out of the decay of its neighbourhood, intent on living up to its name.

This institution has catered to the needs of Johannesburg's growing population of street children since the birth of South Africa's democratic status. Originally established in 1992 as a YMCA Streetwise Project, it offered meals and some literacy classes to its errant clientele. Today, it is a full-fledged school that has opened its doors to also cater to the needs of some of the city's refugee children.

"The name was the result of a competition that required the students to come up with the best possible name for their school," says Principal Desmond Mabuya. "As this was just immediately after our democratic status came into being, the students of that time became the youth of a new nation that offered an opportunity to rebuild their lives, so New Nation it became!"

Coming from a past that referred to its children as the "Lost Generation" due to the erratic nature of the education received after the youth-led Soweto Uprising of 1976, this school symbolises hope for the future.

Hopeful about their future - this is how today's 20 registered refugees feel about their school, which provides hot nutritious meals to 80 percent of its students every day. A government-subsidised institution, it relies heavily on donations, usually provided in kind, and the odd school fee scraped together under difficult circumstances.

Colleagues from neighbouring schools often take Principal Mabuya to task for throwing a lifeline of support to refugee students, who come from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Great Lakes region of Africa.

"Many of the students' parents are unemployed or are earning insufficient salaries to pay the fees," says Mabuya. "Besides, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa states very clearly that every child in South Africa has a right to education. I could not turn them away just because they are refugees."

Like any parent, Mabuya wants the best for all his students, irrespective of race or religion. He is working to have the support of French-speaking teachers for his refugee pupils, as well as the room and resources for a fully functional school library. His ultimate dream, however, is to introduce music as a serious subject at the school.

For Mabuya, the passion and profession of UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks - who visited on Tuesday - is confirmation that his pursuit for the recognition and promotion of music in his school isn't a fancy whim as some would believe. While he is honoured to meet with the world-renowned classical singer, Mabuya has another reason to introduce music to his students.

Music offers a creative outlet for South African and refugee students at New Nation school in Johannesburg.  © UNHCR Pretoria

"I want to encourage it in the school largely for its therapeutic benefit," he explains. "My children, South African and refugees alike, are predominantly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and have suffered some sort of trauma. They do not open up or speak about their past easily, so you find that essential information we may need as a school is not forthcoming. Sometimes the situations they have come from also act as a stumbling block to understanding their needs. Trauma counselling can also be expensive."

He adds, "But what we realised is that when they beat upon a makeshift instrument or create a lyric or two, their outlook on life changes. It is like music is the key to opening up and releasing the burdens their young hearts hold, so this is important to me."

It is also important to Hendricks, who is currently in South Africa to celebrate the country's Decade of Democracy through two benefit concerts with the Food and Agriculture Organization's Goodwill Ambassador and former refugee, Miriam Makeba.

"Music education is very important especially for young people because through it, they are able to learn different forms of expression which do not lend themselves to violence," says Hendricks. "For refugee children coming out of war and conflict, I cannot think of a better way to help them work through their trauma."

The International Classical Music Festival (ICMF), the organisation hosting the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador's visit to South Africa, is keen to help disadvantaged communities take music on a serious level, especially on a continent where music - "food for the soul" as Hendricks puts it - is a way of life. ICMF Director Robert Brooks has encouraged New Nation school to contact his organisation for more information on how best to source assistance.

"The children have a natural ability and aptitude for music," enthuses Mabuya. "They play bongo drums, recite impromptu poems, largely about their experiences. In this way, they reveal interesting snippets of information we would not have easily received from an interview. From some of this information, we are able to piece together the jigsaw puzzle that is a child's experience."

Hendricks adds, "Music and other forms of artistic expressions equip all of us to better deal with life and the challenges it poses. It is time that policy makers and governments took music seriously, considering what good can come of it. The principal of New Nation has certainly grasped it, and I wish him and his school every success in bringing to the fore this natural talent we all have."

Hendricks with a student in the New Nation school library, which the principal hopes to expand.  © UNHCR Pretoria

Principal Mabuya is optimistic that his dream can be realised. "Whatever the situation, and in our situation as a school, it is music that has a way of reaching into their innermost parts, soothing away the pain or exorcising what demons are lurking in the depths of their being. This is why my children need that music class and I will not rest until I have it. After all, hope is what New Nation is all about. "

By Pumla Rulashe
UNHCR South Africa