Iraqi refugee musician finds a sympathetic ear in Brussels
Iraqi musician Hussein Rassim owes the city of Brussels a two-fold debt of gratitude. Not only did it give him a new home, it also reunited him with that which meant most to him – his instrument.
“I was happy in Brussels,” recalls the 29-year-old refugee, who arrived after fleeing his homeland in 2015. “But I missed the music. It was the first thing I missed.”
His beloved oud – a Middle Eastern member of the lute family – had helped Hussein through what he calls the “misery” of war in Iraq. Forced to leave it behind when he fled, he longed to play again, in peace.
He wrote about it on Facebook and soon people in the Belgian capital, a musical and cultural melting pot, were offering to help.
"I was happy, but I missed the music."
“Help Hussein make music again,” read a crowdfunding appeal circulated on social media by journalist Brian Ging, Amnesty International’s Irem Arf and Maria Serrano, and UNHCR’s Maeve Patterson.
Their plan was to raise 2,000 euros. As news spread and people from around the globe responded, the group realized they would smash their target.
Hussein could hardly believe he would soon play the oud again.
“You know, people promise a lot and I understand when it doesn’t happen,” he says, shaking his head. “I never thought it would. But the amount got bigger and bigger. I was so excited.”
For years, the war in Iraq had crushed Hussein’s spirit. A student at the Institute of Musical Studies in Baghdad, he had played the oud since 2009, but worsening conditions in the country made him feel trapped.
“You can see it on people’s faces – the sadness and exhaustion. Every day people try to find a few dollars to feed their family. There are explosions, no electricity. It’s a misery.”
In August 2015, Hussein made the decision to flee. He flew to Turkey and paid smugglers US$ 3,000 to take him to Greece.
Heavy seas buffeted the tiny fishing boat as he and 22 others crossed the Aegean one cold morning. It took three hours to reach Greece.
However, Hussein dreamt of Belgium, which an American friend had once told him was beautiful.
"There are explosions, no electricity. It’s a misery."
From Greece, he passed through the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, sleeping on streets, sneaking through forests and pushed into cars by smugglers.
After reaching Brussels, he slept in Maximilian Park, where hundreds of refugees congregated, as he waited for a response to his asylum application. He found himself acting as a spokesperson for those around him and would show new arrivals around the city, helping them to feel at home. But even after receiving refugee status, there was something missing.
His friend Maeve Patterson knew what to do.
“Looking at Hussein’s photo and messages on social media, my friends and I were just compelled to help,” says Maeve. “I thought, it’s so hard to make a difference for everyone, but if we can do something for just one person, it’s a start. It was clear that a little effort our end would make a big difference to Hussein, as his lute and music are not only his passion, but also his profession.”
Far from his family, friends and culture, Hussein has found joy in music once more. Having the instrument has also given him the chance to make a living, playing concerts and recording albums.
Hussein has even found love through music, meeting cellist Juliette who is now mother of their two-month-old daughter Ellea, and a member of their band. The pair fell in love after Juliette suggested they play the song “Lama Bada Yatathana” (“When She Begins to Sway”) together, one of Hussein’s favourites.
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“She said ‘let’s play this song if you know it’ and I said of course I know it,” he says, chuckling. “We played it that day and we still play it all the time. If I hadn’t had the lute I wouldn’t have met Juliette.”
In January, their band Nawaris released its first album, “Migration”, and will perform a series of concerts. Hussein can never forget how it all began – a Facebook post, four friends and his beloved city of Brussels.
“There have been a lot of cool moments in Brussels, but it was a special moment to have that lute and to play, play, play. It changed my life.”