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On an island awash in music, a refugee adds his voice

On an island awash in music, a refugee adds his voice

For a refugee from Sierra Leone, studying music at the Edna Manley visual and performing arts college in Jamaica has been a lifeline back to normality.
2 July 2008
Sierra Leonean refugee Alie Marrah at the Edna Manley College with Clover Graham, UNHCR honorary liaison in Jamaica.

KINGSTON, Jamaica July 2 (UNHCR) - Jamaica is renowned for its music and the chance to study at a visual and performing arts college in the island nation's capital, Kingston, has been a lifeline back to normality for one West African refugee.

Alie Marrah fled his native Sierra Leone at the height of the civil war in the 1990s and chartered a course for the Caribbean as a stowaway aboard a commercial vessel. He weathered that perilous journey and overcame rejection and detention in Trinidad before his refugee status was recognized by UNHCR.

Alie picked up his love of music from his grandmother. He recalls childhood experiences singing in the church choir and a home full of musical instruments. The war, which started in 1991, ended his aspirations to become a musician; his hopes were shattered by the brutal conflict that engulfed his country.

But no amount of suffering could extinguish his dedication to music. Performing as an amateur in Trinidad, he learned about the Edna Manley College in Jamaica and was determined to study there.

Alie's determination, talent and the encouragement of friends led him to Kingston where he has just completed his second year of studies at the Edna Manley College School of Music, which is one of many arts programmes offered by the college.

The college, named in honour of the famous sculptor and wife of Jamaica's independence era leader, Norman Manley, attracts students from all over the Caribbean and other corners of the world. Alie's studies are supported by a UNHCR scholarship which is conditional on his maintaining high grades.

Together with fellow students, Alie has formed a group called Jamafrique. The band draws upon the rhythms of his native Africa and the musical traditions of Jamaica.

They have performed at college concerts and at various venues in Kingston and hope to make a name for the group on the local music scene as a stepping stone to greater success. Inspired by his example, another refugee in Jamaica, a young Haitian with a passion for rap, is currently applying for admission to the college.

In recognition of the supportive environment offered by Edna Manley College, UNHCR's Washington office marked World Refugee Day on June 20 with a small cash donation towards the purchase of musical instruments and the presentation of a set of refugee-related music videos for the college's library.

Among the donations presented by UNHCR's honorary liaison officer in Jamaica, Clover Graham, was a copy of "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars," a documentary featuring a band formed in the refugee camps in Guinea. The band, who have toured the world, maintain close ties with UNHCR.

"It is so encouraging after all he has been through to see Alie enjoying his music so much. I've been to a few of his concerts and seen what he and his fellow students can do," Clover said on Alie's accomplishments.

Like his compatriots in the Refugee All Stars, Alie has embraced music as a path towards healing the wounds of his country. Music has brought hope back into his life but he has not forgotten his experiences, which echo through his music. The lyrics of his song "Mama Meh Chant Fi Yuh" recall the pain of war and exile:

Dingoley Mama meh chant for you
Dingoley wipe your tears doh cry Mama Dingoley
Mama meh chant for you
Mama Africa dem have your joy turn sorrow Mama Dingoley
Mama meh chant for you gwan do your ting wipe your tears doh cry Mama Dingoley.

Up to 2 million of the country's 6 million citizens were displaced during the height of the conflict in Sierra Leone, with some 490,000 fleeing to Liberia and Guinea. Significant improvements in the consolidation of peace and security in Sierra Leone have led many Sierra Leoneans to return home and more will follow throughout 2008.

Alie, too, looks forward to going home and making his mark on the music scene, but he plans to do so with a music degree under his belt.

By Grainne O'Hara in Kingston, Jamaica