A Syrian tale
A Syrian tale

A Syrian tale: Healing with music

His days and nights were music. His only dream was sharing his nation's music with the world. Then one day civil war broke out. Nearly five years on, neither that dream nor the war, have stopped. For the past two years, every day of the working week, Tameem Kurdo has volunteered his time and teaching Syrian refugee children the music from their homeland at the Danish Refugee Council’s Community Centre in Altinozu, Turkey.

From Turkey

By Rowena McNaughton, Regional Communication Officer, DRC-MENA

It’s early in the morning, and as the small rural village of Altinozu in Southern Turkey comes to life, a steady stream of young children, some holding hands, some skipping along alone, are winding their way through the cobbled streets.

At a wooden door encased with colourful painted handprints, they enter and charge up the stairs to the first floor. Most convene in a bright, airy room filled with small wooden tables and chairs and with walls plastered with children’s artwork. This is the Danish Refugee Council’s Community Centre. One of around 40 such safe spaces it now runs across Syria and its four neighbouring countries that act as a service providing space for refugees and vulnerable host communities.

I am here to meet 25 year-old Tameem Kurdo. I find him sitting alone in a small room next to the one the children are in. Neat rows of gleaming musical instruments, I later learn are rare traditional ones from Syria and Turkey, line the walls. Rays of sunshine from an open, glass door looking out to a mountain range that behind them sits Syria, fill the room.

I have heard much of Tameem from the village people. The music man. The talented one. The Syrian who plays in a Turkish band. The one who plays “our” Syrian music. The latter said with a flint of hope and nostalgia.

Tameem, a volunteer music teacher at the Community Centre, is reluctant to heed this praise. Instead, he picks up a beautifully crafted Oud and asks if I want to hear music. The sound of an Oud – an instrument with an origin hidden in antiquity dating back to biblical times - is said to have remedial qualities. It was originally called ‘al-oud’,  the Arabic word for “the wood.” While the instrument’s entrance into Europe dates back to 711AD in the courts of Al-Andalus, the Syrian version of the instrument is one of the rarer kinds. It has six pairs of strings and is tuned inclusively to C-E-A-d-g-c. Some believe that this is why it maintains a more pure sound.

The wooden stringed instrument Tameem plays, was the first thing he bought when he finally felt safe in Turkey. Safe to sleep, and safe to play music again. It was made by his old music teacher in Aleppo and he had a friend hand deliver it. It took six months.

Tameem is good. The songs he plays are ones of on old Syria he has taught himself through the distant memories of a childhood sitting listening to his grandfather play. “I never played traditional music before, but now in Turkey I want people to remember our music,” he says. “Sometimes I get frustrated as I lost some of my skills when I couldn’t play during the crisis and was moving around so much.”

Like too many Syrian refugees, Tameem’s life over the past four years since civil war broke out has been a constant battle for safety and survival. When the so called Islamic State forces invaded his village of Idlip, it became the catalyst of life lived fleeing from one Syria village to the next. He eventually crossed the border into Turkey, and Altinozu, where he has lived since September, 2013.

He moved alone and arrived in Turkey with nothing but the clothes on his back. His precious musical instruments he worked hard to save for and buy while he was musical student studying in Aleppo, Syria, were given to a friend. He does not know if they remain safe. Turkey has the highest number of Syrian refugees; over 1.9 million of which half are children, according to United Nations refugee agency figures.

Making a new life in a foreign land as a refugee scarred by what you have endured to survive is not easy. Tameem said he has survived by networking with those that are proactive and give. It took just eight months into his new life in Turkey before he found DRC and its Community Center and started teaching fellow refugee’s music.

Every month he teaches around 25 new refugees aged 10-40 years the Oud and the Sarz – a traditional Turkish string instrument he taught himself to play when he arrived in Turkey. “Living in Turkey now I want to share our great music together.” Many traditional songs he says have similar melodies in both Turkey in Syria.

“We just have a different language so we sing half Turkish and half Arabic.”

In his students he sees great change as they turn up each day for their lessons. Not only in their musical ability, but their self-confidence. Most children at the centre are receiving psychosocial counseling. Nightmares, silence or outbursts of aggression are common amongst many refugee children from Syria.

“I can see the impact of war in the children. I don’t say anything. I teach them music. We play together and slowly their confidence builds.”

Every day the DRC Community Center in Altinozu welcomes around 100 people. In the small village where over 600 Syrian families now live and make up over half the population, it has become a vital networking communal space uniting both the refugee and host community.

“We all want to go home but at least we can come together and enjoy our music,” said Tameem.