Music as therapy for people seeking asylum - Refugee Council
June 15, 2018

Music as therapy for people seeking asylum

by Chris Bowie, Regional Therapeutic Services Team

Music has the power to transcend many barriers with rhythm, the patterns in sound and silence, at its foundation. We are all born having spent months feeling the steady beat of our mothers’ heart so it’s no surprise that the act of hitting a drum with a hand can be so powerful. For the past eight months myself and my fantastic interpreter Shaimaa have been facilitating a weekly music session at Urban House, an Initial Accommodation Centre in Wakefield. The sessions are a valuable opportunity for clients to socialise, relieve stress, express themselves and share cultures and experiences.  The group sizes tend to range between ten and twenty with many clients coming back each week during their stay. We have a cupboard full of percussion instruments: djembes, cajons, tambourines, shakers and darbukas but not always enough to go around so clients join in with clapping (and occasionally singing too) whilst others prefer to sit back and soak up the atmosphere.

No two sessions are the same with every week bringing a new group of clients each with their own cultural identities and musical traditions.  I will usually start the session with a warm up, teaching a simple rhythm and trying some call and response before inviting participants to share a rhythm or a song. There are some clients who have never played music before whilst we often have very talented musicians joining us in the sessions which makes the experiences all the more special. As a musician, it’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to be exposed to song and rhythm from so many different cultures and even better to be given an authentic live performance. I’ve had a go learning some Sudanese, Egyptian and Kurdish rhythms myself too!

There are a number of families with children staying at Urban House and it was recognised there was a need to provide more structured activities whilst the children are not in school. Since April, we have been running an extra session for under-14s incorporating songs, different rhythms, call and response and games such as the increasing popular ‘musical statues’. As well as being a fun activity, these sessions are helping to develop communication skills, build confidence and provide structured learning with a view to ease the transition into mainstream education. I have seen so many examples of children gaining confidence, improving language skills and making friends even over just a few weeks. One moment that stands out was when at the start of a session four-year old Amir* burst into the room, and despite having limited verbal skills, was able to show everyone what he wanted to play using the actions from the game. I immediately understood and we all enjoyed a few rounds of ‘musical detective’ and Amir* was even able to show the rules to some of the new children.

 It’s great to see the positive impact exposure to music can have and the feedback from clients has been fantastic with several participants emphasising how drumming takes the mind away from the stresses of their situation. Others have benefited from the opportunity to meet new people and socialise in an open and supportive space. I look forward to continuing the sessions, meeting new people and making more music!

*Amir’s name has been changed to protect his identity