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Bringing hope to Syria this Christmas through song

School children sing at the Singing for Syrians in the House of Commons

Authors: Yasmina Allouche and Jehan Alfarra

Filling the beautiful Speaker House in the House of Commons with song, Hands Up Foundation launched Singing for Syrians for a third year, raising funds for Syrians affected by the last six years of war.

Victoria Prentis, the Member of Parliament for North Oxfordshire, hosted the Parliamentary launch and was joined by journalist and Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow and Syrian refugee Tirej Brimo.

“I was a new MP two years ago who knew almost nothing about Syria apart from what I saw on Channel 4 News quite frankly and what I heard on the radio,” Prentis explained to the audience.

She was inspired to sing for Syrians “after a long bath” and has since worked with the Hands Up Foundation’s George Butler to organise this nationwide series of carol concerts.

I started to worry not just about the migrants who we saw passing into Europe, but also about the people they’d left behind who we couldn’t see on the television cameras and just how bad their own situations must be back in Aleppo.

Singing for Syrians was then launched in 2015 as a nationwide initiative which offers a positive way to raise money to help Syria’s most vulnerable people by encouraging individuals, bands, choirs, schools and churches across the UK to raise money by holding a singing event which is open to everyone.

The Hands Up Foundation, a grant making organisation, was set up by four British friends inspired by their time in Damascus and who wanted to let Syrians know they are not forgotten as the war continues.

Praising the beauty of Syria and its cities before the conflict and highlighting the achievements of its people, Snow stressed the importance of raising awareness about the conflict. “Above all it’s to get people thinking in their minds and in their singing of this other wonderful country, Syria, and what we can do to assist the people that live in Syria,” he told MEMO.

Money raised through Singing for Syrians will help support the Hands Up Foundation’s partner organisations working in and around Syria monitored by the foundation in the UK with all the funds raised distributed as wages and aid items to Syrians.

Some of the projects that have gone on to raise money include the Syrian Supper Club, MarmalAid and Singing for Syrians.

“We have to accept that we are now looking at a conflict which has gone on for far longer than the Second World War,” Jon Snow said. “It is one which has, just like the Second World War, sucked in the great powers – sometimes on the same side and mostly on different sides – and of course has the added complexity of the Islamic State’s insurrection and attempt to found a state,” he added using another name for Daesh.

Image of Jon Snow (L), a Channel 4 News presenter, at the Singing for Syrians on 13 September 2017 [Jehan Alfarra/Middle East Monitor]

A choir from Oasis Academy South Bank sang Bob Marley’s “One Love” to kick-start this year’s Singing for Syrians campaign.

“My message is that there is love and peace still going around even though there’s wars [sic], and they need that love and peace to help them get through all the wars that are going around,” 14-year-old member of the choir, Soraya, told MEMO.

The initiative is gaining momentum with over 100 Singing for Syrians events held across the UK last year raising over £140,000.

Some of the funds have been used to support projects including providing prosthetic limbs made by the National Syrian Project, running Al-Amal Kindergarten in Idlib city, establishing a kindergarten for 169 Syrian children, covering medical salaries and financing the wages of 21 staff members.

Tirej Brimo, a Syrian refugee, began studying medicine in 2007 in Aleppo and only completed his degree ten years later in 2017 after graduating from St George’s University of London.

Travelling through four countries and ten cities before arriving in England, Brimo had to make the journey from Syria with just one small clothes bag five years ago.

“There are no words to describe the atrocities you’ve been through,” Brimo tells the small audience.

He described how his dreams and plans all disappeared when he was forced to flee the war, leaving behind his loved ones and friends.

“In the same way waves violently get crashed on rocks, youth and dreams get crashed by war – they scatter and fade away like they never existed.”

I still remember the way I cried when I first realised that everything was lost and I became just a number

Brimo explained. Life only started “smiling down” on him when he arrived in the UK and resumed his medical degree as a “proud doctor working humbly for the NHS” helping others as he was helped.

Holly Jones, director of Together Productions, was one of some 30 people who attended the private event. “What a powerful event,” she told MEMO. “The speech by Tirej…was just incredibly moving and a real call to action actually for all of us.”

Drawing parallels between the campaign’s aims and her own work on bridge-building art projects, Jones praised the use of music in raising awareness about the Syrian crisis and allowing people “to better understand one another and hopefully extend some compassion and empathy.”

Following Tirej’s speech, Hands Up Foundation Founding Trustee, George Butler became emotional as he explained that there was “no argument strong enough” to not do anything to help.

“The point is really to remind people in Syria that we met five or six years ago that they have not been forgotten, there’s millions of ordinary people, professionals that we try to support that are still trying to get on with their lives.”

George hopes that this year will be “bigger and better” with people going back to their “schools and choirs” between now and Christmas to raise awareness and funds for the foundation’s projects.

The foundation chooses projects which they “feel they can do efficiently and safely” and which “we can monitor each month”.

For Chris Gaul, who works for the International Organisation for Migration fighting human trafficking, events like Singing for Syria are good because they highlight that there is “massive support for refugees” that goes beyond just providing the basic necessities when they arrive.

“A sense of community” and groups working “around shared humanities” helps refugees to integrate into British society when they arrive, Gaul told MEMO.

We do want you here, we do want to look after you, we do want you to become part of society when you’re here. It’s also about celebrating the creativity and brilliance of refugees who have already come here, who are working hard to become something other than their past.

Prentis urged the audience to hold similar events and carol concerts this Christmas and to attend their flagship carol concert which will take place at St Margaret’s, Westminster, on 12 December with a star-studded array of readers and soloists.

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