A story told through the universal language of music

In one of Istanbul’s oldest settlements on the Bosporus, in Emirgan district, lively chats and laughter of women are resonating across the rooms of the old mansion’s second floor. Women of different ethnical backgrounds, meticulously rehearsing and making final preparations for the evening’s performance, are all but naturally emanating their strength through the universal language of music.

These women first crossed paths in Istanbul as refugees of Syria’s now 7-year conflict and then as enthusiastic and talented members of the Syrian Women’s Choir. The choir, born in 2016 upon a joint initiative of a few refugee women attending activities in a community centre funded by the UN Refugee Agency, has blossomed into an exemplary platform acting as a messenger between cultures. Showing no sign of intimidation and inspiring only pure confidence ahead of their third live concert in front of a large audience, 19 women of the choir are ready to perform songs from the Middle East alongside renowned Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub in what will mark the final concert of 24th Istanbul Jazz Festival organized by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and hosted by Sakıp Sabancı Museum.

Sitting in the balcony overlooking the waters of the Bosporus strait embracing two continents, one of the members of the choir, Hanan, a mother of four and a grandmother of five, is telling the story of a separated family. Hanan arrived in Turkey 20 months ago together with her two children, leaving behind a son and a daughter. “I was living in the countryside of Damascus. I used to run my own business, a jewellery design atelier, and I had a house of my own. Then, I lost all in the conflict and I was left with no other choice but to flee,” says Hanan who currently lives with her son in İstanbul.

She tells her story with a strong longing in her eyes for the beloved ones left behind but also with the just pride of a mother seeing her children and grandchildren maintain their perseverance and pursue their dreams even in the hardest of times against the backdrop of a conflict. His youngest son is continuing his higher education in the field of computer science in Germany while one of her grandchildren has few years ahead to graduate as a dentist in Damascus.

“Music is such a strong tool to communicate many of the feelings we experience.”

Her eyes are windows to the emotions behind her words, revealing as she speaks the wounds inflicted by the past and the curiosity and hope for what the future has in store. When talking about her life in Syria and what she had to leave behind, her eyes have the power to be so telling  that she would be eloquent without ever saying a word.

Eagerly telling how she was introduced to the choir, Hanan says: “Coping with the trauma brought by conflict and displacement, I have found comfort in the community centre, meeting new people and getting the opportunity to share my feelings and ideas in the course of various activities and ateliers offered by the centre. The idea of a music atelier greatly appealed to many of us. We have then discovered the comforting and healing power of music.”

Depicting what music means to her, Hanan adds “Music is such a strong tool to communicate many of the feelings we experience. Indeed, music has a universal language, not only belonging to human beings but to all forms of life in the universe. Music has also brought us into closer communion with the members of the Turkish community. I have Turkish friends who greatly enjoy listening to Arabic songs, though they do not speak our language. Music has become a strong tool of expression for us and a tool of exchange between Turkish and Syrian communities.”

Expressing her pleasure at the support extended by her husband, who currently lives in France, Hanan says, ”He encouraged me to be part of the choir, knowing it would help me to overcome my trauma. He would love to be by my side today. I have just taken some videos of the concert area and sent to him. I will share videos from this evening’s concert as well.”

“All has left us no other choice but to be resilient and stand on our own feet.”

She talks about the friendships she has forged within the choir and the confidence brought by these strong bonds. She says she is confident ahead of this evening’s concert. Gazing out at the surrounding, she adds “Look, what a magnificent concert area we have been given. One can only sing more beautifully in the midst of this enchanting environment.”

She says she came out stronger after all she went through. “All has left us no other choice but to be resilient and stand on our own feet. We have learnt to rely on and to draw upon our own dynamics and strengths.” Expressing her admiration at the beauty of Turkey, at the hospitality of its people and the richness of its culture, Hanan says “All I want is to lead a peaceful life, being able to earn my own living without relying on assistance. This is even more important as a woman. And for this, we need more opportunities.”

UNHCR supported community centre has touched the lives of these women, who joined their hands and strength in creating beauty for all. The community centre has opened new horizons and doors for many refugees like Hanan, helping them to hold onto life. Hanan’s story is giving voice to those of other refugees living across Turkey, the largest host country of refugees worldwide. Her story bears witness to the need for more robust support to refugees and their host communities in healing the wounds of conflict and displacement and in helping them unlock their potential for the benefit of both communities.

July 2017