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World Refugee Day: Iraqi musician raises USD 24,000 for UNHCR programmes

News Stories, 18 June 2008

© UNHCR/B.Auger
Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma during Tuesday's concert.

DAMASCUS, Syria, June 18 (UNHCR) Acclaimed Iraqi oud (lute) player Naseer Shamma has raised more than USD 24,000 for UNHCR's Iraqi refugee programme with a concert at the Damascus Opera House to mark World Refugee Day, which falls on Friday.

The take from Tuesday's concert will be used to provide financial support for 150 of the most vulnerable Iraqi families in Syria over a month-long period.

Sold out within two days of tickets going on sale, the concert featured new music that Shamma created to reflect the situation of Iraq and Iraqi refugees. The programme included musical dialogues with other performers from Iraq; different styles challenging and mingling, with wisps of music evoking Iraq's past.

"I am terrified that we are losing Iraq's culture. Its sense of oneness, its true being," Shamma said. "I am committed to supporting my people as human beings who have a lot of talent to offer and share."

At times Shamma played his six-string oud with one hand only, a technique he developed to remember Iraqis who had their hands cut off in the late 1980s during the autocratic regime of the late President Saddam Hussein.

After playing "Good Morning Baghdad," he called on the audience of 1,300 people to support UNHCR's Iraqi refugee programme, which is facing a funding crisis. "This support is a lifeline. We all need to do our best to gather people, gather friends to support Iraqi refugees."

In the past Shamma's music has been compared by musical critics to a political rally without words. Despite the standing ovation and the warm media reviews, Shamma worried that his work advocating for refugees could affect his music and oud playing.

"I play my music with more conviction, more strongly, but my mind is preoccupied with the problems of my people. I will not stop, but I am challenged with finding the time and space for my practice, my music," said the musician, much of whose work is inspired by his exile.

Shamma fled Iraq in 1993 when a friend warned him that his arrest was imminent. Several years earlier, he spent 170 days in prison followed by 50 days in hospital. He left Iraq the day of the warning and headed to the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Since then, he has only returned to Iraq once he brought a group of doctors to Baghdad in 1997 to help children needing surgery. Shamma says he will only return to Iraq when there is real democracy and no sectarian divisions. "I need freedom for people in Iraq," he said after the concert.

As food and fuel prices rise and their savings dwindle, Iraqi refugees are becoming more impoverished. The worst consequences of this poverty are child labour, homelessness, children not attending school and early marriage. UNHCR's financial assistance programme targets this vulnerable portion of the refugee population currently some 4,000 families receive help.

Since the beginning of 2007, the falling value of the US dollar has led to a USD 6 million dollar loss of support for the UNHCR programme in Syria. There is a funding shortfall of USD 61 million for the entire Iraq operation, covering Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

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Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

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