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Music keeps hope alive for a trio of urban refugees in Luanda

Telling the Human Story, 6 February 2014

© UNHCR/T.Ghelli
Freeboy Gbaryeel and Mania Mulongwa play music together in Luanda, attracting music-loving neighbours.

LUANDA, Angola, February 6 (UNHCR) Music helps Freeboy Gbaryeel cope with the drudgery of his daily life and the uncertainty of his future. The Liberian refugee has always loved singing, but it has become more important since he learned to play guitar five years ago.

And, with the help of the refugee agency's representative in Angola, he has more of a chance to make money from his hobby and escape with his family from the poverty trap in the Angolan capital, Luanda.

"Music is something that is always in my thoughts," says the 38-year-old Liberian refugee. "When I play, I feel happy," he says with a smile, adding that it helps him to forget his many problems. Yet, even though Liberia has been at peace for a decade, he does not see repatriation as a solution and wishes to stay in Angola.

Freeboy fled to neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire in 1990, to escape the vicious civil war in Liberia. In 2002, he moved to Angola after hearing that there were better opportunities there, but like many other urban refugees he has struggled to provide for his Angolan wife and their three children.

He scrapes together a living as a freelance electrician and handyman and lives in a tiny two room home in a low-income neighbourhood of Luanda with his growing family his wife is pregnant with their fourth child.

But it pains him that his name is not on their birth certificate they were registered under their maternal grandfather's name so that they could take Angolan nationality. He hopes that this means they will have a better future and an easier life than he has had.

Freeboy never thought of music as a way out of his situation, and he became a musician quite by chance. On returning home in the evenings after a job, he would often hear the melodic sounds of an acoustic guitar floating through the narrow alleyways in his overcrowded neighbourhood. One night in 2009, he decided to investigate with his friend and fellow Liberian, Samuel Saah Yneykor.

Their search brought them to Mania Mulongwa, a 40-year-old asylum-seeker from Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the three struck up a friendship. Listening to Mania playing, Freeboy soon caught the bug. "I thought I wanted to learn how to play guitar, so I asked him to teach me," he recalls.

"Music helped to release our stress," he says, adding that soon he was not only playing the guitar, but also writing his own music. He mostly wrote anti-war songs, including one about his flight from Liberia.

"When we write songs, we try to include messages about what happens in our daily life," notes Freeboy, before launching into one of his haunting compositions for his UNHCR guests in the small dark room. "Do away with the hatred; we all have to ask for forgiveness. I don't take sides but we need to educate ourselves so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past," he sings.

Last June, UNHCR asked the group to play at a World Refugee Day event in Luanda. Luísa dos Santos, wife of UNHCR Representative to Angola Hans Lunshof, noticed that their instruments were old and was told that the band members had to rent the amplifiers and other sound equipment. She was impressed by their performance and suggested to her husband that they make a private donation of some new instruments, amplifiers and microphones.

"Not only do they make beautiful music, but now they can have the basic equipment necessary to perform at other events and can turn their music into a real source of income," says Lunshof. "We need to support this entrepreneurial spirit of the refugees so that they can be more self-reliant."

Meanwhile, Freeboy wants above all to share the gift of music with others. He and his friends still play every evening in their small shack, attracting music-loving neighbours. One teenage boy has asked Freeboy to teach him to play guitar. "I am happy to pass it on. Mania taught me and now I can teach this lad."

UNHCR's office in Angola helps urban refugees by providing free legal assistance, ensuring access to public health care and education, and organizing vocational training to help people become self-sufficient. It also works with the government to provide social assistance to the most vulnerable.

Angola hosts more than 43,000 refugees, including Freeboy, Sam and almost 500 other Liberians. Most refugees and asylum-seekers in Angola are from neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By Tina Ghelli in Luanda, Angola




UNHCR country pages

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

As of late March, more than 100,000 Ivorian refugees had crossed into eastern Liberia since lingering political tension from a disputed presidential election in neighbouring Côte d' Ivoire erupted into violence in February. Most have gone to Liberia's Nimba County, but in a sign that the fighting has shifted, some 6,000 Ivorians recently fled across the border into Liberia's Grand Gedeh County. Most of the new arrivals have settled in remote villages - some inaccessible by car. The UN refugee agency sent a mission to assess the needs of the refugees in the region.

Photographer Glenna Gordon photographed new arrivals near Zwedru in south-eastern Liberia.

New flows of Ivorian refugees into Liberia

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Colombia's armed conflict has forced millions of people to flee their homes, including hundreds of thousands who have sought refuge in other countries in the region.

Along the border with Colombia, Panama's Darien region is a thick and inhospitable jungle accessible only by boat. Yet many Colombians have taken refuge here after fleeing the irregular armed groups who control large parts of jungle territory on the other side of the border.

Many of the families sheltering in the Darien are from Colombia's ethnic minorities – indigenous or Afro-Colombians – who have been particularly badly hit by the conflict and forcibly displaced in large numbers. In recent years, there has also been an increase in the numbers of Colombians arriving in the capital, Panama City.

There are an estimated 12,500 Colombians of concern to UNHCR in Panama, but many prefer not to make themselves known to authorities and remain in hiding. This "hidden population" is one of the biggest challenges facing UNHCR not only in Panama but also in Ecuador and Venezuela.

Liberia: Return, Reintegration, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

On July 21, 2004, the final UNHCR convoy from Liberia crossed over the Mano River bridge into Sierra Leone with 286 returnees. This convoy included the last of some 280,000 refugees returning home after Sierra Leone's brutal 10-year civil war which ended in 2000. Overall, since repatriation began in 2001, UNHCR has helped some 178,000 refugees return home, with a further 92,000 returning spontaneously, without transport assistance from UNHCR.

UNHCR provided returnees with food rations and various non-food items, including jerry cans, blankets, sleeping mats, soap and agricultural tools in order to help them establish their new lives in communities of origin. To promote integration of newly arrived returnees, UNHCR has implemented some 1,000 community empowerment projects nationwide. Programmes include the building and rehabilitation of schools, clinics, water and sanitation facilities, as well as micro-credit schemes and skills training.

UNHCR and its partners, alongside the UN country team and the government, will continue to assist the reintegration of returnees through the end of 2005.

Sierra Leone: Last Return Convoy from Liberia

Liberia: A Neighbour's HelpPlay video

Liberia: A Neighbour's Help

Alphonse Gonglegbe fled to Liberia with his family a few months ago. He appreciates the help he's been receiving in this land neighbouring his native Côte d'Ivoire.
Liberia: Hurried FlightPlay video

Liberia: Hurried Flight

Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled their villages and sought shelter in Liberia. Francis says he ran for his life and now he wants safety and food.
Liberia: Settling InPlay video

Liberia: Settling In

A dozen new shelters are built every day in Liberia's Bahn refugee camp. Eventually there will be 3,000 shelters for some of the many civilians who have fled from neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.