Forming a choir: making music with refugees in Athens

We no longer need English or French, because they are not our languages. We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.
The Acropolis in Athens, Greece.

“When I make music, I forget everything, the dark thoughts go away,” says Ahmed.

It’s the December 11, 2017, and I am in the heart of Exarchia, an anarchist neighbourhood in Athens.

I’m staying at at the Orange House (“Zaatar”), an accommodation and cultural centre for refugees. At the moment I am running around Athens, struggling to find a guitar, and I’m becoming increasingly impatient. Tomorrow morning, I’m making music with the refugees.

My friend Marina, the Franco-Greek founder of The Orange House is currently on leave, hence I’m here to supervise the house.

The next day is a riotous affair. Twenty children, teenagers, adults and even old people show up. We don’t have enough instruments, but I expected this: the two guitars will go to the guitarists, and the others will sing. Those who can’t sing? They can keep the beat going.

Obviously, nothing goes as planned. When I ask an Afghan woman to sing the classical C-major scale, she sings the harmonic minor scale: the oriental scale. I audition the others, but she is the only one who can really sing. My dreams of a harmonious choir are short lived.

I improvise: the rhythm, that’s what we’ll focus on. But I can’t help lose hope – very few have a sense of rhythm, and those who do can’t help but speed up to a furious pace.

The first classes are tough. My choir keeps getting distracted, and after five minutes, they lose track. They get up, talk on the phone, and walk around the improvised classroom – all with good reason.

Ahmed has had nowhere to sleep for more than two weeks, and spends his nights in Victoria Square, the home of many refugees in Athens. As a 17-year-old Pakistani, his status as a “single man” does him no favours. No NGO can find him accommodation.

Fahed, a 19-year-old Syrian, is obsessed with Calais and England. He is desperate to join up with the English woman he married in a camp in Gaziantep during his journal, but his marriage is not recognised by the British government. To make matters worse, France has recently closed its relocation programme, deeming it to have fulfilled its goals.

Anousha is Iranian. She is 50 years old. Forced to marry a violent husband at the age of 15, she has born the brunt of insults, punches and humiliation that have marked her forever, decimating any self-confidence she might have had. Every five minutes she tells me she’ll never make it, that she’s not good at anything.

Anja, a 15-year-old Afghan girl, is extremely enthusiastic, despite not remembering anything I tell her.

Olivier never smiles. The 21-year-old from the Congo is always sad, and is not motivated enough to participate in the class. Despite that, he keeps coming back.

All of my students arrive looking tense. They are haunted by their past traumas: they mourn for their former countries and way of life, often succumbing to nostalgia. This feeling is compounded by the more concrete problems of finding accommodation, staving off inactivity, learning the new language and dealing with a painstakingly slow bureaucracy. Yet when smiles are drawn, the tenseness fades – we even laugh for a moment.

At the end of class, they leave whistling, and thank me: “the music is magic, it’s really good”.

“See you tomorrow, huh?” they insist. And the next day, they are there, at the ready – they even arrive early to make sure not to miss a session. Eventually the choir gets to know one another. I discover that some take a two-hour bus not to miss the six o’clock guitar lesson. The kids love to come and listen. I invite them to join in by clapping rhythm with their hands, but they opt for cooking utensils and standing on the tables. They’re not always in rhythm, but they laugh!

Olivier teaches Congolese rumba to Hassan, who spent a year in prison. Fahed starts again on a famous old American tune.

Anousha and Anja ask me to play the chords of a well-known Persian song by Salar Aghili – they sing it together.

We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from.

We realise that through music our barriers fall, and through music we communicate. We can forget where we come from. They look at each other and the music takes shape, and the melodies blossom with rhythm. Bonds are formed, and I see real smiles.

Fahed insists that I teach him to play “happy birthday”. I don’t like the melody, but I try anyway. He doesn’t quite get it and I lose patience, so he films me playing it with his phone. He tells me he would have liked to play it himself – it’s a gift for his wife in England from Athens.

I’m embarrassed, what does it matter if “happy birthday” is not my favourite song, I could have made an effort.

Ironically this is what I am thanked for. By not treating them as if they were made of glass, as victims, but for seeing them as equals. By forgetting, for a moment, their status “refugee” – this word that sticks to their skin, and is so hard to remove.


Emmanuelle Stein