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Refugee Music in Europe: Migration, Asylum, Soundroutes, and Arab Jams

Arthur R George By

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The European Union reports Syria, Afghanistan, and Turkey have been the main sources of asylum seekers since 2013. The EU has paid Turkey about $6.7 billion since 2015 to be a holding area for migrants who would otherwise head to Europe. Some refugee activists believe that money would be better spent within Europe to facilitate the settlement of immigrants. Turkey now has about 3.6 million Syrians alone within its borders, a million in Istanbul alone. The country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has threatened to "open the gates" by releasing large numbers of refugees toward Europe to force support for his policies, and seeks to return two million Syrians to their country. Persons have also fled Turkey upon government purges of those identified as opposing the government.

In Europe, activities of welcome contrast with hostility to the newcomer. Future residence is uncertain, present survival arduous. There are limitations on earnings for refugees who receive public assistance, limitations on time off for travel for musicians who must work regular non-music jobs. Passports when available may not permit travel to certain countries at all, or not without expensive visas. Passports issued by governments from which the musician has fled are problematic. World famous artists from other countries may be brought in for performances when migrants from those same countries are not given opportunities to perform.

Genres of music are not uniform, labels may be limiting and isolate persons as "other." Musicians may feel constrained within their native music, presented as caricatures, not allowed to wander outside, then criticized upon blending influences or venturing into other styles. Others want to keep their musical communities distinct in their new countries. Some musicians from Islamic countries have their performances denounced as haram, forbidden by Islamic law. Some fear reprisals against family who remain behind.

Alaa Arsheed told the magazine Quartz that he wants his music to remind the world of Syria's innovations in culture and art. The refugee story is more than numbers and pain. "Europeans are not seeing the other side of Syrian culture," says Arsheed. "We are not just miserable refugees... I want to break this stereotype that we have been forced into." Shalan Alhamwy said music enables him to present "a counterweight to the negative image of refugees, that we also have a rich culture and talents."

An EU report on integration of refugees confirmed that artistic expression promotes self-esteem, facilitates the expression of emotions, and processes traumatic experiences. Jazz, blues, and folk music have all done that. Music offers refugees the means to explore, express, and reconstruct their reactions to conflict, violence, and exile. New neighbors have the opportunity to listen, and perhaps comprehend.

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