Back in March 2017, the SOAS Ceilidh Band made a two-part journey to Turkey and then to Iraq in a project of musical solidarity with adults and children in refugee camps.
The first stop was Tarlabashi, which, as Ed Emery notes, is currently subject to full-on gentrification. The musicians arrived to play at a small underground canteen known as Mutfak. It is run by volunteers, and provides daily meals for refugee children from neighbouring countries who have sought refuge in the area . The Band’s visit to Istanbul was a way of reaching out to children, and they knew that their presence there would open up the possibility for children to dance and play. Usefully, the road was being dug up, so the Band was able to do a barn dance in the street, playing their customary fanfare of jigs and reels on the fiddle, flute, guitar, melodeon and drum.
After serenading the neighbourhood, the Ceilidh Band moved on to the James Joyce Bar in central Istanbul. This being 17 March, where better than an Irish bar in Turkey to celebrate St Patrick’s Day! Actually this has become an annual fixture for the Band, and the event is much awaited by the locals.
A couple of days later, a skeleton crew went ahead for the second part of the trip. To Makhmur, 50 miles south of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan. The local camp houses Kurdish refugees who have fled punishment from the Turkish government over the last 20 years, alongside Arab refugees fleeing the war in Mosul and elsewhere. The 30,000-strong camp has experienced attacks by ISIS militants who have attempted to gain ground in this region, but the camp has now come under the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga – nationalists who fight for an autonomous Kurdish state.
Ed notes how the refugee camps closest to Mosul are overwhelmed with the numbers of desperate families in flight. What is more, the aid agencies are saying openly that the next threat they will face is starvation. Upon seeing the difficult situation, with people fighting for food, and with aid volunteers stretched to their limit, Ed thought perhaps it was not the best moment for drums and music.
So the team journeyed on to the Dibaga, just south of Makhmur. Upon arriving at the refugee camp gates security personnel asked them to prove their humanitarian musician status by singing to gain entry. A rendition of MacAlpine’s Fusiliers seemed to do the trick. The first port of call was the camp’s secondary school, where the headmaster gathered the students to watch their impromptu concert in the playground. Then on to the primary school. At the gate the children had the chance to play with the instruments the team had brought. Then pandemonium, as other children rushed joyfully out of their classrooms to listen to the music. A teacher encouraged a little boy to come forward and speak to camera about his own experiences with Daesh. The translation and video is as follows:
“We had to get across the water, but when we got across we were relieved, because we had escaped from ISIS.Before that, we were f****d. We were forced. My family’s income was cut. We had no place to go. It was like being blocked in a place having no way out. Like a prison. We couldn’t eat. They wouldn’t allow us anything to eat. They blocked us off and prevented us from going anywhere. We were starving, and they wouldn’t give us anything to eat, or anything to drink, like they were torturing us.
“When ISIS were here, they didn’t allow us to study. I couldn’t go to school. I’m from Nasr originally. Now I am very good. Now I am going to school again and I can study. I feel comfortable here.”
For the team it was good to be able to work with refugee children, and to hear their voices speaking directly.
SOAS Ceilidh Band welcomes new musician members, of whatever level of skill. Their next big musical trip will be to Cairo in early November 2017. All are welcome to join. More details can be found on the Band’s Facebook page.