In Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa Valley, among the farmland and rolling hills, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) counts 365,555 registered Syrian refugees, more than one-third of all those registered in Lebanon. Many of them live in tough conditions; in flimsy camps that ice over during the cold winters, or without consistent access to food, education and social support. Tensions between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese population often run high.
According to Bekaa authorities, there are 23 local NGOs working in the region.
“Almost all NGOs tend to concentrate on psychosocial support, taking into consideration the bad situation for Syrian refugees, and the level of tension between the refugees and the host community,” says Hussein Salem, Bekaa regional coordinator for Lebanon’s Social Affairs Ministry.
But one NGO is pioneering a different approach, using the simple beauty of singing to ease tension and forge a sense of belonging for Syrian refugee students. In 2014, Sonbola, an NGO focused on education, partnered with award-winning choir conductor Barkev Taslakian – the man behind the famous Tripoli-based Fayha choir – to form a choir for 200 children.
Its members are aged between six and 15, and come from both Syrian refugee backgrounds and the local population. Alongside vocal range and age, likelihood of violence is among the unlikely entry criteria; with the hope of easing anger and strengthening relationships through music, Sonbola actively chooses those who have expressed the will to carry out a violent act.
“When we first started the choir, every break time someone got injured, there was hitting, there was blood,” Taslakian says, as the echoes of music drift through the doors of Majdal Anjar Official High School. “Now they don’t push or hit each other, [but], if hitting happens, we try to make it right. At least people aren’t getting injured anymore.”
Today is choir rehearsal day. Inside the school hall, all eyes are fixed on Taslakian. The children are attentive, listening to Taslakian and following his lead. When he is interrupted by whispers and chatter, he deals with it delicately; controlling the situation, then moving his hands in a way that encourages the children to sing in harmony.
“The aim of this is social; we use the power of music to discipline them, to teach them to work as a unified group, because in the choir there are conditions,” he says. “When they are singing together, there will be mistakes, and so they need to learn to forgive and love each other because they don’t have any other solution.”
Massa Mufti is Sonbola’s cofounder and CEO. The choir was initially launched as a pilot, she says, after Sonbola launched studies to understand education gaps for Syrian refugee children. Mufti wanted to help fill the gaps in a way that did not replicate the work of existing organizations.
“Sonbola was born as a result of the deep needs and the education crisis of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon,” she says.
In fall 2014, Sonbola officially got off the ground, and in summer 2015, it became a registered organization.
“Based on our experience on the ground, we came up with a philosophy to cover these needs,” Mufti says. “If there is something that distinguishes us, it’s the flexibility that we have, and our capability to adapt to changes happening in reality, or on a policy level.”
Sonbola is also assisting Syrian refugee children in some of the Bekaa Valley’s refugee camps with transportation and other incentives to join classes at local schools.
“We also have a learning center that gives them remedial teaching, psychological support lessons and projects related to building peace, citizenship and capacities,” Mufti says.“The choir falls under our psychological support projects.”
Music isn’t only a means of expression, but a way in which important values can be ingrained in the children. “It’s one of Sonbola’s success stories,” Mufti adds.
Syrian students Mazen and Ola say they love being a part of the choir.
“I am very happy because I am singing,” says Mazen.
Ola echoes his thoughts. “We are learning new songs and having fun,” she says. “There is happiness.”
Ayham Watfeh, Sonbola’s Bekaa Valley director, is proud of the positive change that the choir is having on the students.
“[Before], there were a lot of psychological problems with the children,” Watfeh says. “We had children putting knives at the necks of their friends. This happened during the first sessions.”
But then the students’ attitudes and discipline began to change, almost in an unrecognizable way. He says this drastic improvement has affected him on a personal level.
“Their way of life has changed, the way they see life has changed,” he says. After the experience of the choir, I am now convinced that a choir leader can change a society.”