This World Refugee Day, one choir’s efforts should be music to all our ears
Featured vocalist, Kurdish refugee singer and Citizens of the World Choir member Nawroz Oramari, performs for the UN in 2019 with musical director Becky Dell. Photo Credit - Rachel Otterway
Members of the Citizens of the World Choir come from all over the globe, but thanks to National Lottery funding and support from across the political spectrum, they’re all singing from the same hymn sheet now.
When celebrated Kurdish singer Nawroz Oramari was imprisoned and tortured at the age of 17 on charges of singing songs that were critical of Saddam Hussein’s regime, he had to sign a pledge never to sing again. For 33 days of his three-month detention, he didn’t see sunlight – and for 24 of them, he was brutally tortured, all the while knowing that the penalty for singing again would be execution.
Today, Nawroz is 59 and, having escaped the violence in Iraq, he is proudly singing once again. He was forced to leave his family behind when he fled his homeland as a teenager, going on to live in Iran, Syria and Lebanon before settling in the UK. Here, he has found refuge in more ways than one, and has been performing as a soloist with the National Lottery-supported Citizens of the World Choir for more than three years.
The London-based choir brings together refugees, asylum-seekers and British-born singers to make music as a group and in doing so, helps promote a better understanding of people displaced by war, famine and persecution. It was started in 2017 by Lord Roger Roberts who, after the closure of Calais Jungle, dreamt of a project that would open its arms to the refugee community in the UK. As a proud Welshman, his idea was a choir: to promote integration and healing through the power of music.
For Nawroz, it’s been a lifeline.
“I don’t have a wife, don’t have kids, don’t have that many friends – I don’t even have a dog!” he says. “So the choir is like my new family.”
Describing herself as “transfixed” when she first heard Nawroz sing, the choir’s musical director, Becky Dell, described how much he brings to the group.
“I've never heard this style of singing in my life before. I’m classically trained and to hear a Kurdish singer singing Kurdish folk songs was just wonderful – I was a bit lost for words. His style and the sounds he emulates from nature are amazing; it’s very different from the tonal system we use in Western Europe.”
This cultural exchange is a common theme of the Citizens of the World Choir, whose more than 50 members represent 30 different nationalities among them. As its supporters celebrate World Refugee Day, many are keen to point out how initiatives like this one can highlight the vast contributions made by refugees to their adopted homelands.
Personally, I know so many refugees who bring so much to the country they've come to – whether it's England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the world. And what they've added to their community definitely deserves to be celebrated.
Shadow Immigration Minister, Bambos Charalambous MP, called the choir “truly inspirational”, adding: “Their music is a powerful example of the cultural richness that refugees and immigrants contribute to our society. Their message of peace and integration is strongly expressed through their music and sets an example for us all.”
Labour peer Lord Dubs, himself a Jewish refugee from former Czechoslovakia, also praised the choir’s ability to “normalise” refugees, saying: “Something like the Citizens of the World Choir gives them a chance to be normal, to contribute and to act like ordinary human beings in the country to which they've come.”
Lord Dubs, who has spent much of his political career fighting for the rights of refugees, added: “We should remember why people are fleeing for their lives; we should remember the terrible experiences they've gone through and why they're looking for a decent country to provide them with safety. I hope we will continue to be a decent country.”
The Citizens of the World Choir has certainly attracted the cross-party support for refugees that Lord Dubs has long campaigned for. David Simmonds, Conservative MP and Vice-Chair of the Refugee APPG, commented: “World Refugee Day is a fantastic opportunity to reflect on the success stories of integration and refugees in this country. The Citizens of the World Choir is undoubtedly a success story that showcases the tolerance, inclusivity and talent of the refugee community, and I am particularly inspired by the story of Nawroz. It serves to highlight how refugees enrich this nation.”
Musical director Becky praised the support the choir has had from parliamentarians of all stripes since its launch in 2017, adding: “I don't think we change the narrative by being tribal and political. I think this is a broader humanitarian issue that requires everybody working together to find a solution.”
But for the choir itself, working together was a challenge over the past 18 months. The pandemic meant that members couldn’t gather as they usually would – and it was only because of National Lottery funding that the group were able to buy second-hand devices for every choir member. This allowed them to continue online rehearsals at a time when many members were feeling isolated and lonely.
“It’s really important to highlight the fantastic work of third-sector and refugee- or migrant-led organisations, which is often quite overlooked because it’s so community-based,” said SNP Shadow Secretary of State for Justice and Immigration, and Chair of the Refugee APPG, Anne McLaughlin. “It might be on a small scale, but the impact it has on other people's lives is incredible.
“Personally, I know so many refugees who bring so much to the country they've come to – whether it's England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the world. And what they've added to their community definitely deserves to be celebrated.”
For Nawroz and the choir, the celebrations are just beginning. The group is releasing its first ever professionally recorded work, a five-track EP of original music devised and recorded during this year’s winter lockdown using Zoom and WhatsApp voice notes.
Recorded with composer Tom Donald, the EP takes inspiration from European composers, as well as Kurdish, Arabic, African, European, and Celtic musical traditions – and was made possible in part by National Lottery funding.
The Citizens of the World Choir EP, entitled Symphony of Voices, is currently available exclusively on Bandcamp to celebrate Refugee Week.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.