Refugees find their voice, and a community, in acclaimed choir
Glastonbury was a mind blowing experience for Aref, performing on the biggest stage at Britain’s biggest music festival alongside rock band Elbow, “seeing thousands and thousands of people with the same vibe, all happy”. He struggles to describe the experience: “Incredible, superb, I don’t know the word… epic!”.
Citizens of the World Choir was co-founded in London by Becky and Tess who met as volunteers conducting music workshops in the Calais ‘Jungle’, the informal camp for refugees and migrants in northern France. After the camp was demolished in late 2016, they decided to continue this work through a choir when they arrived back in the UK. Their aim was to create a community of friendship, music, and song, where refugees, asylum-seekers, and their supporters could share their talents and a stage.
Aref is one of over 50 choir members from 30 different countries and his experience shows how a nurturing and supportive community can help people who are forced to flee their homes to build a new life.
Aref joined the choir during the pandemic lockdown in 2020 when he was new to the UK. Struggling with a sense of dislocation from home, and isolation from others, he was seeking a community to become part of. After seeing a flyer advertising Citizens of the World, he decided to try one of the online rehearsals. “It was chaotic!” he laughs, remembering the first Zoom session.
Aref persevered and, as the pandemic receded and in-person practices resumed, he became more closely involved, using his skills as a photographer and a student of digital media to help raise the choir’s public profile, a role that was formalised when the choir’s organisers secured funding to hire Aref to work on photography and social media.
“He’s helping us out, and he’s studying,” says Megan, Artistic Director at the choir. “It’s been a real privilege watching him work. I think he’s a real artist and it’s exciting to be able to facilitate his growth.”
This kind of reciprocity and mutual support helps make the choir a true community, bringing together people forced to flee and their “allies”, as the organisers call them: local singers from around London, and in particular from the local community in Greenwich where the choir rehearses.
“We decided right at the beginning we wanted this 50/50 ratio to aid integration” Becky explains. They believe that it provides an avenue for people to give some of their time in beneficial ways. “Lots of people don’t know how they can help. Sometimes just being here, singing along and welcoming people. It really gives that hugely nourishing feeling that people need,” her co-founder Tess adds.
The result is a unique mix of people who might not otherwise have met, who come together every week to sing and to share their experiences.
The choir, many of whom had never sung before, are gaining acclaim through impressive, high-profile performances, such as Glastonbury, but public praise aside, the support that members give each other sends a powerful message about solidarity and welcoming outsiders into a community.
Singing together has its own benefits, but being together means more still, says Megan. “Being part of a community means showing up. We invest in each other’s lives, and when you have people you care about, it’s hard not to advocate for them.”