MINYARA, Lebanon: Calling themselves “The Homsies,” a group of Syrian teenagers in north Lebanon’s Akkar are using their musical talents to send a message of peace – and at the same time to help improve the lives of refugees. “If there is one thing everyone does, it’s listen to music. So this is a powerful tool to convey a message,” Qotiba, a 14-year-old from near the Syrian city of Homs, told The Daily Star. His song, “Al-Qusair – Spring of Freedom,” is a powerful and poetic expression of his longing for his hometown. “Syria is being destroyed and everyone should know that this is happening and that we want peace,” he said.
Conveying a message, however, is only part of their goal. By selling their music online, the five band members hope to make enough money to make the project that helped start their band self-sustaining, and purchase new equipment for their space, an education facility called the Academic Center in Akkar, sponsored by local NGO Malak.
The whole idea got off the ground thanks to a personal initiative by Anthony Collins, a Scottish musician who saw talent in the teenagers who go to the center, and founded the NGO Mishwar Amal to foster their skills.
“I was playing the bagpipes at this same center a year ago when Qotiba and [bandmate] Qosay began rapping on the notes of my music,” Collins told The Daily Star. “I was taken aback by their musical talent.”
At the time, Collins had just finished working in a circus in China and was briefly passing through Lebanon to visit a friend on the way back to Scotland. Only supposed to last a few days, the trip stretched over a month. During that time, he explained, he discovered the extent of the refugee plight in Lebanon.
“Back then, I was naive and full of prejudice,” Collins said, remembering his fear as he first entered the nearby Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared near Tripoli. “I thought it was a dangerous place, but then I discovered the Palestinian hospitality.”
A year later, Collins reconnected with the people he met and, in collaboration with them, launched the NGO. Rather than providing help, the organization aims to foster the talents refugees already possess.
“When I first visited refugee camps I came empty-handed and discovered that what refugees have to give is often more than what you can give them,” Collins said. “They possess so much talent and they are looking for ways to express it.”
Mishwar Amal provided equipment needed for recording and mixing music, while the lyrics and beats were independently produced by the five band members.
Qosay, a 14-year-old member of “The Homsies,” remembers Collins’ first visit clearly. “Qotiba and I used to sing at parties in the camp but we did not have any music and the result was not so great,” he told The Daily Star. “Then Tony [Collins] heard us and encouraged us to complete our lyrics with songs,” he said.
Collins is now hoping the sales from the first three songs, available for download on various online music platforms and through the NGO’s website for $1 each, will boost the group’s self-confidence and encourage others to take part. Half the proceeds will go to the center to buy needed equipment, while the other half will go to the NGO to help make the project sustainable.
“It is important that this initiative transforms into something tangible that they have earned themselves,” Collins said. “This is necessary if we want to counter the psychological impact of being dependent on humanitarian aid.”
Collins is also looking to expand the NGO’s music-related activities at the Academic Center to other refugee communities in Lebanon, having received significant interest from Palestinians in Nahr al-Bared.
Mohammad Loubani, a 28-year-old resident of Nahr al-Bared, is one of those interested in being involved. Loubani was born with a congenital condition that left him blind, but he also has musical talent.
However, playing music in Nahr al-Bared has been a challenge since the refugee camp was decimated in 2007 in fighting between the militant Islamist organization Fatah al-Islam and the Army.
“Many of those who played music had their instruments destroyed during the fighting,” Loubani said. “Now, few can individually afford to buy new ones and the bands that exist are affiliated to political parties.”
With the help of Loubani and other volunteers, Mishwar Amal hopes to be able to finance music centers within the camp and launch other groups like “The Homsies.”
Music has been an important part of Loubani’s life and a valuable tool in dealing with both his medical condition and his refugee status. “Children look for happiness and hope and music gives them both,” he said, adding that this belief prompted him to talk to Collins about setting up a project inside the camp. “There are so many people inside Nahr al-Bared who are in need of these emotions.”
This was true for Hiyam, one of the two girls in “The Homsies” band, for whom writing and performing music has become a way to express her deepest feelings, including the loss of her father during the Syrian war. “Don’t you see what is happening to the Syrians? The massacres, the blood that was shed, thousands of dead every day and in every family,” the lyrics of the 13-year-old’s rap song read. “We want nothing in this life, but to live in safety, without shelling or killing, without destruction or war.”