Syrian duo teaches French schoolchildren how to get rapping

A workshop by the duo Refugees of Rap opens new horizons for pupils at a school in northern France.

Yasser (à gauche) et Mohamed Jamous, deux frères et rappeurs syriens, ont appris aux élèves à composer du rap sur les thèmes de l'exil et de la liberté d'expression.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

How do you interest teenagers in what is going on in the world? A pair of Syrian refugee musicians has found an answer: get them to tell stories using hip-hop and rap music.


Rapper brothers Yaser and Mohamed Jamous were among refugees who visited schools in the French region of Normandy earlier this month.

For a week, the schools played host to refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Iran, Syria and other countries to tell their stories and demonstrate their culture, skills and talents. They included chefs, musicians, journalists, farmers and architects.

Yaser and Mohamed formed the duo Refugees of Rap in 2007 in Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus populated by Palestinian refugees. Their lyrics speak of life and conflict in Syria. They were forced to flee their homeland in 2013 and were granted refugee status in France later that year.

The pair organized a rap and hip-hop workshop in the middle school in the town of Trévières, teaching the pupils how to compose rap on the themes of exile and freedom of expression.

The week’s activities were aimed at raising awareness among pupils about refugees and forced displacement as part of a partnership between UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the Bayeux-Calvados Award for war correspondents.

“With music, not just rap, I think we can connect with the energy of youth.”

The annual award, presented by the city of Bayeux and the Calvados Department, is designed to pay tribute to journalists who report on conflicts. It was created in 1994 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings in World War Two.

"Teens aged 13 to 18 are not interested in looking on social media to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world, why there is a refugee crisis and why there are wars,” said Yaser. “With music, not just rap, I think we can connect with the energy of youth.

Syrian duo Refugees of Rap taught French schoolchildren how to compose their own raps.

Syrian duo Refugees of Rap taught French schoolchildren how to compose their own raps. (Kamilia Lahrichi, Céline Schmitt, producers / Clément Alline, camera / Laura Bowles, editing)

"If you talk to a teenager about the war in Syria, I don’t think he would be interested, but if you talk to him with music and if you tell him ‘today, you will rap’, I guess he will be interested.”

Mohamed added: "It’s important for us to talk to teenagers, to students in general, to explain what is happening in Syria, why there are refugees who left and why there was a refugee crisis two years ago. At the same time, we can show them that, through art and music, we can resist, we can express ourselves and share a peaceful message.”

After lunch in the school canteen cooked by Maryam Hani, an Iraqi refugee who lives in northern France, pupils were given the opportunity to take part in a rap workshop in the afternoon.

A little shy at first, they were soon intrigued and ended up vying to present their own rap arrangements.

“It’s incredible that they can keep smiling after all they have been through.”

"It’s great to have the opportunity to meet people like them, people who have fled their country and yet can calmly tell us what happened to them,” said 14-year-old Maïwenn . “It’s incredible that they can keep smiling after all they have been through.”

During the workshop, another pupil, Alexandre, 14, wanted to rap about a Sudanese refugee, Hassan Mahamat, who had told his story to Alexandre’s class that morning.

After fleeing Sudan, Hassan ended up in a detention centre in Libya before crossing the Mediterranean to Europe in a rubber boat. He was one of the lucky ones: he survived, but he saw others die when their boats sank.

"My lyrics speak of freedom. I wrote ‘Although the sea was not kind to us, we arrived safely’. I spoke about the journey, which wasn’t easy," Alexandre said. 

Teachers were enthusiastic about the rap workshop.

"It's true that pupils see a lot of things on television, hear a lot about migrants and refugees,” said Isabelle Boisset-Vinault, the history and geography teacher. “They jump to conclusions. It was important for us to invite refugees into our school to allow them to meet the pupils and make them aware of what is going on.

  • Hassan Mahamat from Sudan, in centre of photograph, sits with pupils at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in Trévières. He told them about his journey via Libya and across the Mediterranean.
    Hassan Mahamat from Sudan, in centre of photograph, sits with pupils at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in Trévières. He told them about his journey via Libya and across the Mediterranean. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
  • Pupils listen to Sudanese refugee Hassan Mahamat tell the story of his journey to France via Libya and the Mediterranean.
    Pupils listen to Sudanese refugee Hassan Mahamat tell the story of his journey to France via Libya and the Mediterranean. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
  • Iraqi chef Maryam Hani made lunch for more than 200 children at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in Trévières, north-west France.
    Iraqi chef Maryam Hani made lunch for more than 200 children at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in Trévières, north-west France. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
  • Pupils at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in the north-western French town of Trévières enjoy a Middle eastern lunch made by Iraqui chef Maryam Hani.
    Pupils at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in the north-western French town of Trévières enjoy a Middle eastern lunch made by Iraqui chef Maryam Hani. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
  • Pupils at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in Trévières view UNHCR's photo exhibition "The Most Important Thing", installed at the school.
    Pupils at the Collège Octave Mirbeau in Trévières view UNHCR's photo exhibition "The Most Important Thing", installed at the school. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

"Last year, we worked on the topic of refugees in history and geography lessons. This year, we looked at refugees from the First World War to try to see the broader picture around the establishment of the official status of refugee. This allowed pupils to understand that it came to fruition relatively recently. 

"In welcoming refugees, we wanted them to understand the difference (between refugees and migrants) and to encourage greater tolerance, because they may not meet many refugees and migrants here in the countryside, and they have wrong ideas about who they are,” she said.

"We hope that this day will broaden horizons -- of pupils and their families.”

"We hope that this day will broaden horizons -- of our pupils, of course, but also of their families.”

Yaser and Mohamed’s third album will be released on 25 November. They have concerts planned in Paris and Stuttgart for the release of the new album, and tens of thousands of views on YouTube, which impressed the pupils, who queued up to ask Yaser and Mohamed for their autographs after the session. However, Yaser and Mohamed’s journey was far from easy.

"Starting again with a French and European audience was not easy because we rap in Arabic and it's important that people understand the words,” said Mohamed.

"People in this age group are the future and perhaps they will be able to make some changes. I hope so, anyway.

"It is also about raising awareness to fight for freedom of expression always because in the West, including here in France, there is freedom of expression which is precious, and sometimes people don’t realize that.”