European Youth Music is the current British/German partnership that maintains this ethical principle of international friendship through music but now drawing from a wider geographical base.
The EYMRC seemed a natural extension of these founding principles. So we set about raising sufficient funds to pay for the young refugees/asylum seekers to attend the 2018 week-long summer course held at Oakham School alongside the orchestra. We also wished to provide vocal training in three areas (Birmingham, Bristol, Leicester) in the months leading up to the course. A new choral and orchestral work was commissioned from composer Chris Wilcox reflecting the often-harrowing journey of the young people to the safe haven of the UK (the shamefully government-created ‘hostile environment’ notwithstanding!) and the inspiring aspirations of the young people themselves. The RSA Central Region’s grant was part of this fundraising effort.
Not all went to plan! We received institutional resistance and downright hostility; we struggled to recruit young people unable to commit for any distant future event given the transient nature of their existence, plus we were unknown to them; in spite of our long track record, our innovative project was seen as too risky by several refugee support agencies that refused to engage.
However, we were bloody-minded and determined! The Red Cross and Children’s Society came to our rescue swelling the ranks, in especially Birmingham, plus recruiting young people from Kent and Hampshire. Finally, we had a choir of 30, drawn from 8 countries – combined with the orchestra the course had 24 different nationalities and 36 languages!
The outcomes were astounding. Orchestral players and refugees mixed as one; although learning mostly by rote, the choir learned a brand new work on the course itself in no time at all; Channel 4 got wind of it and created a 7 minute piece for Channel 4 News (https://www.channel4.com/news/refugee-choir-aims-to-sing-communities-together); lives and perceptions were changed; Leicester Cathedral hosted the concert, brilliantly performed by all the young people beneath a harrowing art installation created by refugee clothing found on Lesbos beach; all the young refugees gained an Arts Council England Arts Award qualification.
What now for the project and the young people?
German and Portuguese colleagues have picked up the international baton. Here, plans are afoot to create permanent regional choirs plus developing a long-term plan with additional new partners - financial, artistic and societal, - offering the current young people and their successors, a way to be part of UK society and presenting a very different perspective from that often portrayed in an unsympathetic media, populist politicians and on-line vitriol.
The young people themselves are our ambassadors - and our original crazy idea is putting down roots!
By Keith Horsfall FRSA