A marching band in Melbourne comprising young refugees from Syria is helping its members adjust to their new home, while providing a connection with their community. By Denham Sadler.

Syrian marching band helps refugees

At 6 o’clock every Friday night, a group of about 40 children and young adults gather in a nondescript community hall in Brunswick, Melbourne, to play music.

It’s a diverse group, aged anywhere from six to 18 and hailing from all around the city. But they have one thing in common: they’ve lived through and escaped the civil war in Syria.

Known as the Australian Syrian Youth Marching Band, they play a wide range of songs, from traditional Syrian music such as “Ya Bahreyya”, to Australiana such as “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” and “I Am Australian”.

The band was formed by Syrian-born priest Samir Haddad, who now serves as a priest at St Joseph’s Melkite Catholic Church in Fairfield, in Melbourne’s north-east. Haddad came to Melbourne as a refugee 15 years ago, and when he witnessed the influx of refugees in the past few years he wanted to make a difference.

“I didn’t want the kids and youth to stay at home,” Haddad tells The Saturday Paper. “I wanted them to enjoy their time in this country. We use the music to feel at home away from home.”

At first the band practised in Haddad’s church in Melbourne’s north-east, but has since partnered with the Australian–Syrian Charity and relocated rehearsals to a space in Brunswick. They rely on donated musical instruments and volunteer instructors.

When music teacher Elise Hopkins first saw the group rehearse about 12 months ago, they had a conductor without musical training, children banging on tables in lieu of a drum kit and watched videos of a marching band in Syria to try to imitate the rhythms.

“But I knew straight away that they were something special,” Hopkins says. “There was an energy in the room and, somehow, the music sounded great, too. This was a place where music was powerfully bringing people together and providing a community with joy, hope and pride. I knew from that first night that it would be a privilege and an honour to be involved with such a group.

“Marching bands are an important Syrian tradition, so coming along to rehearsals reminds them of home, gives them a sense of positive purpose and a chance to catch up with other families and children from Syria, and a chance to extend their musical skills. There is also a sense of wanting to shed any image of being a ‘poor refugee kid’ and instead emphasising pride and positive accomplishment.”

Haddad says music has proved particularly effective in helping people fleeing war-torn countries feel comfortable in their new home as well as remaining connected with their old one.

“It’s very good that we can have something from our tradition – music is a big part of our hopes and dreams,” he says. “This is restoring their dignity. It shows that we can do something and that we can be proud of something that is very traditional from our country.”

The group now has volunteer teachers who also offer private lessons on Saturdays. While they practise, other volunteers work with the parents to teach them English. It makes band meetings as much a community gathering as a rehearsal.

“When someone leaves their house, when someone gets kicked out of their house, you need to find a place where you can stay, a safe environment where no one will force you to do anything,” Haddad says.

Hopkins says she sees the benefits firsthand, from the young boy who can’t sleep on Thursday nights because he’s so excited for band practice the next day, to the young girl who now has confidence in her eyes.

“It takes on a different meaning for all of them,” she says. “For some, it is the only thing they look forward to in their week.”

Hopkins works full-time as a teacher, but says volunteering with the Syrian kids is a rewarding boost for her also.

“When I arrive and see the amazing families and enthusiasm of the students, I feel completely energised and can’t imagine spending my Friday nights in any other way.”

The Australian Syrian Youth Marching Band played its first public show at the Winter Solstice Festival at Federation Square in Melbourne in June. Haddad says it was a special moment for him and the young band members. When he saw the pride, confidence and happiness of the players, he says he knew the band had been successful before the first note was played.

“I saw their eyes when they started playing, and I saw the people around them and how it was moving them,” he says. “When they play, people say, ‘We are proud of you and of your energy here.’ They feel valued.”

It was also an important moment for the volunteer teachers, says Hopkins.

“To see the families smiling and the band members looking so proud of themselves was really special and symbolised hope and belonging for the whole community,” she says.

“The current political situation makes it pretty dangerous and difficult to perform as a marching band in Syria, so the fact that the group could march somewhere so significant after only being in Australia for such a short time was very special.”

The marching band is also helping to introduce the new culture to locals and helping them to understand what is happening around the world.

“I have learnt lots about Syria through the stories that the community has shared with me – the beautiful and the heartbreaking,” Hopkins says. “Mostly, I have learnt how much we all have in common. Despite everything the families have been through, the students are much like students everywhere.

“They laugh, they read Harry Potter, they talk about which iPhone is better and who has the coolest hair. They deserve the same opportunities as all Australian children, including access to music.”

When Haddad arrived in Melbourne 15 years ago he didn’t speak a word of English. He has now completed a master’s of education at the Australian Catholic University, and hopes that through the marching band he’ll be able to help the next generation of young refugees arriving in Australia find the new life here that he did.

He says that every Friday night in Brunswick when the band comes together, it feels like it’s working.

“I don’t know what the secret is, but everyone that comes has something good to say,” he says. “We are here now, we are in this country, we value each other and we live in harmony.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2017 as "The prides of march".

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Denham Sadler is a freelance writer living in the Kulin Nation.

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