Iraqi refugees release captivating album online

Three Iraqi refugees produce an album with UNHCR's help and release it on music-sharing sites. The profits will help other refugees in Syria.

From left to right, Abdel Mounem Ahmad on the qanun, Fadi Fares Aziz on the ney and Salim Salem on the oud.  © UNHCR/G.Brust

DAMASCUS, Syria, June 11 (UNHCR) - A trio of refugee musicians from Iraq have released their first album on some of the world's leading music-sharing sites and have agreed to use the profits to help financially strapped compatriots in exile.

"Transitions," comprising 15 tracks put together by Salim Salem, Abdel Mounem Ahmad and Fadi Fares Aziz with the support of the UN refugee agency, made its online debut Thursday on iTunes, Napster, Amazon, Amie Street, IMVU, lala, ShockHound, Rhapsody and emusic.

The three used their collective experiences of life as refugees, their transitions and the uncertainty of exile as inspiration for their captivating and calming music - a mix of ancient and modern that highlights the richness and diversity of the Iraqi musical repertoire. Salim plays the oud (lute), Abdel Mounem the ney (pan flute) and Fadi the qanun, a type of zipher.

They met in Damascus after fleeing the violence in Iraq. The three men often talked about recording Iraqi music that would reach an international audience. "When I arrived in Syria, my oud was my only luggage as a refugee. I had left my country behind, but my music spoke about nothing else," recalls Salim.

His dream to record music with Abdel Mounem and Fadi turned to reality when the UNHCR office in Damascus became involved as part of its "Express Yourself" campaign, launched in 2007 to give talented Iraqi refugees in Syria a platform to express themselves artistically.

UNHCR's Damascus office contacted the iTunes last month and asked them to market the music. They referred the agency to TuneCore, a United States-based music distribution company. TuneCore then sent the music to all its partners - including iTunes - for sale. The album was recorded in Damascus.

Philippe Leclerc, UNHCR's acting representative in Syria, welcomed the release of the album. "Iraqi talent is alive. We need to continue to support it and help Iraqi refugees living in exile," he said. "Iraqi society is facing major challenges today and we hope that this music will allow people all over the world to become closer to Iraqi culture while supporting Iraqi refugees."

Salim, Abdel Mounem and Fadi have all agreed to donate the profits to a UNHCR-run financial assistance programme that provides a lifeline for some 12,000 Iraqi refugee families unable to work legally in Syria, or lacking savings. Every track downloaded will mean 60 US cents for the programme.

"This solidarity will mean a lot, not only to the refugees but also to the humanitarian aid workers who are supporting this operation," said Sybella Wilkes, a UNHCR public information officer in Damascus.

Meanwhile, "Transitions" might become the only album recorded by the three men. While Salim remains a refugee in Damascus, Fadi was recently resettled in the United States with UNHCR help. Abdel Mounem has returned to Baghdad, once a musical centre of the Arab world, though he will play a special World Refuge Day concert in Damascus next Wednesday with Salim.

"I have returned to Iraq, determined to make my future here," Abdel said. "I am part of a resistance that promotes passion for music and peace. Culture and art are still part of the Iraqi identity. Such an ingrained, deep-rooted and ancient civilisation cannot be erased in a few years."

Salim is not ready to go back, but he believes things are improving in Iraq. "During the past year, I have seen music blossoming again in Iraq," said the oud player. "We would like to dedicate this album to all Iraqis around the world, to all the people who have made this project possible and to all fine listeners of Oriental music," he added.

By Dalia Al-Achi in Damascus, Syria