The Healing Power of Music
Moving performances by the Refugee Guitars Orchestra bring hope in troubled times.
When the music starts, the pressures of life as a refugee in Turkey lift for a moment. Just for a while, the pain of past experiences fades away. Playing together in this room, the musicians feel a sense of community, a shared purpose that eases the burden and brightens their outlook for the days ahead.
“Our focus is on nurturing hope that has been diminished,” says Omar AlKilani, founder of the Refugee Guitars Orchestra, a collective of musicians who perform together.
Their most recent track, “Smack That,” is, he says, a vibrant multicultural mashup with a powerful underlying message—that refugees can be cool, resilient individuals who can thrive in modern society despite the challenges of displacement. “Through our initiatives, participants gain enhanced confidence, improved skills, and a profound sense of belonging within our community,” he adds.
AlKilani has always seen music as a source of solace—a way to channel difficult emotions in times of trouble. That’s why he started the orchestra in 2019, so that other people could embrace the healing power of music. “Music has the ability to bridge differences among people, fostering unity and understanding,” he says. “It helps individuals navigate through challenges while fostering resilience and instilling hope.”
Living as a refugee in Istanbul after fleeing Syria in 2015, he understands the hardships people face. Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, with around 3.6 million Syrians living in the country. Most are under temporary protection status, which grants basic rights but denies them freedom of movement.
“The most significant challenge lies in obtaining government papers, which restricts travel in and out. Some locals also hesitate to rent apartments to Syrians,” says AlKilani, citing the “emotional strain” that refugees face, alongside the language barriers, limited employment opportunities, and bureaucratic hurdles that make everyday life so hard.
Strict regulations require refugees to remain in their registered areas, with quotas introduced last year on the number of foreigners allowed to live in certain provinces and neighbourhoods. Many struggle to secure formal employment and are forced to break the rules to earn a living. As a result, they live in perpetual fear of being sent back to Syria amid waves of forcible repatriation as attitudes towards refugees in Turkey grow increasingly hostile.
For AlKilani, music has long offered an escape from these pressures and a way to process the fear and insecurity that remain a constant for Syrians in Turkey. Drawing on his musical background, he wanted to give others the chance to access this outlet. “Music, for me, is not just a hobby or a passion; it's akin to a trusted friend, a constant companion on my journey,” he says.
The Refugee Guitars Orchestra is currently working on releasing its first album, featuring eight tracks, all of which are produced as video clips and uploaded online. An Innovation Hub grant from Ideas Beyond Borders has provided funding to produce their next song, covering the cost of production equipment and recording locations for their latest video. “Music breaks down barriers and reminds us of our shared humanity. The Refugee Guitars Orchestra is a beacon of hope and camaraderie in a climate of mounting aggression,” says Faisal Al Mutar, President of Ideas Beyond Borders.
In the future, AlKilani plans to showcase their compositions worldwide and spread the orchestra’s message of peace further afield. “Anyone watching our musical video projects inevitably sees a deeply respected artwork created by individuals who have lived through challenging experiences,” AlKilani says. “These projects serve as a testament to how music can unite the entire world.”
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This article was written by Olivia Cuthbert.