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How music can transform the lives of refugees

Sydney-based Music for Refugees and Melbourne’s RISE Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees serve the needs of Australia's refugees with a range of music programs.


Sydney-based Music for Refugees and Melbourne’s RISE Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees serve the needs of Australia’s refugees with a range of music programs. Graham Strahle looks at both organisations and what they offer.

The situation facing asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Australia is as no-one would like to believe. Traumatised by circumstances in their home country, they are afforded little human rights protection at immigration detention centres, and they have to endure difficult and often degrading conditions while waiting for processing.

Simple joys like music that can lift the human spirit are denied them, but one organisation has set about changing that. The Sydney-based Music for Refugees has been running for 10 years and is the initiative of music teacher, composer and campaigner, Philip Feinstein. He began teaching piano at Villawood Detention Centre in 2009 and found that the immediate need was a total lack of instruments. In response, he drove a public donation campaign that quickly amassed enormous public goodwill and has yielded hundreds of guitars, keyboards and drum kits. Buoyed by this success, Feinstein subsequently expanded the music program to Manus Island, Christmas Island and Nauru detention centres – read more in Jasmine Crittenden’s story for Music Australia.

Christmas Island Detention Centre has since closed (in 2018), and the situation at Manus and Nauru has become ‘tricky’, says Feinstein. ‘We have sent large numbers of instruments there but have doubts if the refugees have access to them.’ That leaves Villawood, whose programs are ongoing.

He estimates the number of refugees who have been through Music for Refugees to date is two to three thousand. Feinstein says the benefits that the programs bring are transformative. ‘Because refugees have enormous stress, those who participate in the Music for Refugees music program gain stress relief and respite from their day-to-day trauma.’

The need for instruments is still pressing, and the program is looking for donations – ‘Guitars, ukuleles, keyboards and percussion are the best,’ Feinstein adds. Drop-off locations are listed on the organisation’s website.

Music for Refugees is now expanding internationally. Late last year, Feinstein visited Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya to introduce the program ‘to the many thousands of Burundian refugees sheltering in those countries – there is a revolution happening in Burundi resulting in the many refugees taking shelter all over East Africa,’ he says. They now have access to the Music for Refugees program ‘by way of local Burundian bands using the instruments we sent. Their music is really great – some is on our Facebook page.’ See here.

‘I am now also trying to organise water and medical aid for the refugees in a huge camp in Uganda called Nakivale plus sending items there.’ Find out more on the above link.

Meanwhile, Music for Refugees has just been involved in Refugee Week, conducting talks and raising public awareness. Feinstein says it was ‘an inspiration all round – we gave talks at a few different functions’.

Another organisation, this time based in Melbourne, sets out to help refugees who have made it through the system and are establishing their new lives in mainstream society. RISE Refugees, Survivors & Ex-Detainees is an advocacy organisation that operates a drop-in centre in Flinders Lane in Melbourne’s CBD, and it offers resources and welfare support that includes workshops in music, poetry, creative writing and drawing, as well as social networking across the creative industries.

Run entirely by refugees, asylum seekers, and ex-detainees, RISE describes itself as ‘a safe-haven for community members to be themselves’ where they can engage in arts and educational programs that create ‘a sense of belonging and participation in a larger community, reducing isolation’. Its various projects in music and arts, it says, ‘act as a medium for engaging with the wider community through events and festivals and enable us to showcase the various talents and cultural assets that our refugee and asylum seeker communities possess’. See more in the above link.

Since 2012, RISE has been operating a community-based music studio for young asylum seekers and refugees. It expressly aims to allow ‘their voice to be heard, recognised and acknowledged in addressing the various challenges they face’, and to that end the facility offers a recording space, equipment and instructors across four areas: beat-making, mastering, recording and audio mixing. Find details about RISE Music Studio here.

Inspiring stories of just how powerfully music can transform the life of refugees have recently come in the experiences of rap artists, P-UniQue, Arig and DyspOra. They made it out to Australia as child refugees. DyspOra, who could not speak a word of English when he arrived, won Best Male Artist at the 2017 South Australian Music Awards. Read about their stories here.

Refugees and asylum seekers can find assistance and access a large range of support services through the Refugee Council of Australia.

About Graham Strahle

Dr Graham Strahle is Music Australia’s Senior Writer and the Editor of Music Journal.

An experienced music journalist, he writes regularly for The Australian and The Adelaide Review and has contributed to Limelight and Artstate magazines and UK publications, The Works and Managing the Arts Worldwide.

Graham is a former Music Australia Councillor (2002 to 2009), served on the Music Australia Board (2002-2004) and has been a regular contributor to Music Forum.

Graham is an Editor at Journal of Music Research Online, holds a PhD in Historical Musicology and plays the Viola da Gamba in various ensembles including Adelaide Baroque.

This article was written by Graham Strahle and first published on Music Australia’s website here.