Refugees Find Refuge In Music

Apr 18, 2016

In countries around the world, refugees are trying to find their paths out of war zones. Here in San Antonio an organization quietly goes about the business of acclimating refugees to life in the U.S and they're using music to help.

"Just like way back in the days of old...then magnificently we will fold...into the mystic..."

Performer Don Hymel strums his guitar and sings "Into the Mystic" to a couple of dozen people assembled in a courtyard by busy Wurzbach Road. This is the Center For Refugee Services and the people are from all over the world. They're in shirts and ties, in head scarves, and even t-shirts and shorts.  Here's music teacher Dana Clark.

"Oh, I'm a volunteer. It's an all-volunteer organization and it provides services to people from 22 countries. Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Whatever the needs are, CRS volunteers attempt to meet them."

The organization is a non-profit, and operates on a shoestring budget.

The Center for Refugee Services was created 6 years ago to help refugees assimilate here in the U.S. Clark says the center does everything from providing diapers to legal advice to helping refugees learn English. Then there's the music. It was Clark's idea. 

"Wouldn't it be wonderful to get a drum circle going at this event?   So we tried it as an experiment, not knowing if it was going to work or completely flop and it was magical," she exclaimed. "At one point, a woman leaped into the circle and began dancing. It was electrifying. The spontaneous expression of joy."

So Clark tried another music event the next Saturday. She expected parents performing music from their countries of origin, but they got something else.

"What started happening was we were getting the teenagers who wanted to learn the pop music of the United States.  And that was a surprise!"

And so the weekly music lessons began. Hymel and several other musicians come by to perform and instruct. Clark soon found something happening again and again.

"We saw people walk in terrified, and kind of frozen. Not knowing what to expect.  And by making music with them one week, the next week they would walk in going 'Yeah let's make music.'  It was fascinating."

But this wasn't just a fun diversion. For the refugees it was therapy.

"You sit with someone you've never seen before, you make music together , and suddenly you feel like they're a part of your family. And they feel that way, too. Especially for someone who fled violence to come to this country. I have seen scars on these people.   There are tragedies in the pasts of all these people."

Now, dozens of young people are learning guitar, piano, flute and drums. Eleven year-old  Diana is from Iran, and learning piano. 

"We heard about a place called San Antonio. We wanted to see how it was. So far it's a pretty good life."

Clark's been teaching her for several months.

"She glows. She is making incredible progress after only a few months and I know that whatever I give her she is going to master."

"I want to learn more" says Diana. "Maybe even teach students. Whoever wants to learn piano--I could teach them."

Musician Don Hymel speaks with the refugees and parents, and he told me about a pair of Afghans he'd met that week. One worked defusing  IEDS and the other was a translator.

"I have no idea how many American hearts are beating because they did what they did, but I do know this -- as soon as they helped the U.S. Military they signed death warrants for them and their families. So they come here basically to escape and live and let their families grow.  Every new wave of refugees into this country re-invents the United States in the way it was supposed to be in the first place.  It enriches the tapestry of the country."

Clark talks about an event the children played music at, and as a point of respect, they were asked to give the names they were assigned at birth. But they balked.

"They didn't want to be known as Soheil and Dabrud and Pratik, and Kummar. They were Katherine and James. David. Daniel. Lilly. And I'm saying, 'What country were you born in?' And they say, 'We're American.'  Now that makes me want to cry.

Don Hymel sings Lean On Me.

"Call on me brother, when you need a hand. We all need somebody to lean on..."

Every Saturday afternoon at 4:30 the music teachers help refugees find their place in a whole new world, through music. 

"I just might have a problem that you'd understand..."

Find more on the Center for Refugee Services here