The Gulf Today - Business - - Saturday Interview11 -

Hassan Youssef was 10 years old when a lo­cal Syr­ian com­poser dis­cov­ered his tal­ent: a deep pow­er­ful voice that was par­tic­u­larly res­o­nant for tra­di­tional songs. It wasn’t long, how­ever, be­fore Syria’s grind­ing civil war nearly shat­tered Youssef’s hope of pol­ish­ing his nat­u­ral gift. He and his fam­ily left their home in a sub­urb of Da­m­as­cus and trav­elled to Le­banon’s Bekaa Val­ley to be­come one of the mil­lions of Syr­i­ans liv­ing in refugee camps around the re­gion.

When the Ac­tion for Hope Mu­sic School an­nounced it was seek­ing tal­ented chil­dren among the refugee com­mu­nity in Le­banon to train, Youssef’s fam­ily were the first to en­cour­age him to en­roll. A year and half later, the now 14-year-old Youssef is one of two dozen chil­dren who grad­u­ated from the pro­gram, which was capped by a busy and lively con­cert in a cen­tral Beirut theatre Fri­day.

Youssef, a lead singer in the con­cert, had come a long way from the early days of Buzuq, two-string in­stru­ments used in clas­si­cal Ara­bic and Turk­ish mu­sic, as well as tra­di­tional songs from dif­fer­ent parts of Syria and the re­gion.

The crowd at the grad­u­a­tion con­cert, many of them proud fam­ily mem­bers, cheered en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as the chil­dren played a reper­toire of over a dozen songs from Syria, Egypt and Turkey. The crowd sang along and clapped to their per­for­mance of “muwasha­hat” from Aleppo, a form of po­etic bal­lad for which the Syr­ian city is fa­mous. The band also per­formed fa­mous old Egyp­tian songs, stum­bling some as they pro­nounced the Egyp­tian di­alect.

The spirit dur­ing the more than 60-minute per­for­mance was elated, and Youssef drew a long cheer af­ter per­form­ing an old deep­voiced song.

Youssef said he is now plan­ning with col­leagues to form a new band to play com­mer­cially when­ever they can.

Di­rec­tor of Ac­tion for Hope, Basma el­hus­seiny, the war when a mor­tar round fell near his fam­ily’s home.

“We only heard the sound of a mor­tar, it fell near us,” said Youssef, whose shy man­ner con­tra­dicts a deep and im­pres­sive per­for­mance of tra­di­tional Syr­ian songs. “When we looked it had ap­par­ently brought down a whole build­ing. That is all I re­mem­ber.”

Mu­sic, he says, “makes one for­get ev­ery­thing. Mu­sic is the most im­por­tant thing.”

Youssef is one of nearly 3 mil­lion chil­dren who have been dis­placed by the war. In Le­banon, there are more than 1 mil­lion reg­is­tered refugees, nearly half of them chil­dren. Some ob­servers be­lieve many more are not reg­is­tered.

The Unesco-funded Ac­tion for Hope pro­gram Youssef at­tended has trained 24 of those dis­placed chil­dren for over a year and a half. It also aims to pre­serve the mu­si­cal her­itage of Syria and the re­gion, of­fer­ing classes in the­ory and the his­tory of Ara­bic mu­sic, and teach­ing stu­dents the oud or said the mu­sic school of­fers chil­dren trau­ma­tized by the war and dis­place­ment an av­enue to ex­press them­selves and over­come the sense of be­ing a vic­tim. The or­ga­ni­za­tion also has a video and theatre pro­gramme.

“Art gives strength. It em­anates from the abil­ity to cre­ate and at the same time to ap­pre­ci­ate cre­ativ­ity,” el-hus­seiny said. “This strength is needed by peo­ple who are marginal­ized, de­prived and un­der­go­ing dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances much more than the rich.”

Fawaz Baker, a Syr­ian mu­sic ad­viser for the project and the for­mer head of a mu­sic academy in Aleppo, said he picked 24 chil­dren from a to­tal of 200 stu­dents who ap­plied. He chose to train them in a di­verse set of songs from Turkey, Egypt and Syria’s re­gion.

“We tried to di­ver­sify, so that the chil­dren can choose in the fu­ture,” he said.

Ac­tion for Hope is now tak­ing its pro­gram to Jor­dan, where 20 new Syr­ian stu­dents have also en­rolled to learn mu­sic.

Syr­ian refugee Maha Al­sheik Fat­touh, 14, from Homs re­hearses be­fore the grad­u­a­tion con­cert in Beirut, Le­banon.

Syr­ian refugee chil­dren re­hearse be­fore their grad­u­a­tion con­cert.

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