Music and Health

Posted on Feb 28, 2018

The Daily Star Lebanon posted an article by Pernille Solheim about one of NORWACs projects from 2002.

Pernille Solheim| The Daily Star, Feb. 26, 2018



Raed, a young musician, eagerly studied a box of sound equipment brought to Lebanon’s Rashidieh Palestinian refugee camp from a Norwegian sound engineer. “With this, you can check the cables without testing them,” he said, before someone simulated the grating noise that emanates from speakers when testing a bad cable.

“Isn’t it great?”

The 20-year-old Palestinian has been part of a unique music project in Rashidieh since 2010. First as a student, later as a teaching assistant, today he is a paid social worker.

“I started learning the guitar. Now I teach both music and dabke [Levantine traditional dance],” he told The Daily Star, projecting his voice over the sound of a 50-piece orchestra rehearsing in the background.

While the focus of much humanitarian assistance for refugees focuses on medicine, food, water and shelter, Norwegian music professor Vegar Storsve and his colleagues believe that music can be as important for children’s health.

To this end, Storsve and his colleague Petter Barg traveled to south Lebanon in 2002 at the request of Norwegian humanitarian organization NORWAC to give music lessons to Palestinian children in Rashidieh.

“We showed up to the camp with two guitars. In the end, it was a huge success, and we all had a lot of fun,” Storsve said.

Their co-founder, Shadi Ibrahim, has played a central role since the beginning. “We started with around 20 to 25 children and we built the instruments ourselves. The center didn’t have any guitars or other instruments back then,” he said, describing how they would make improvised rhythm instruments with Pepsi can caps.

“But when the Norwegians visited, we could practice with their guitars. And then the project developed, little by little, from rhythmic to more melodic.”

With every visit since 2002, foreign participants have added to the collection of instruments, which today consists of everything from synthesizers to accordions and saxophones. With more resources and equipment, music teaching gradually became a permanent.

“The project started getting more solid, and the number [of participants] grew. Today we have about 70 to 80 kids,” Ibrahim said.

The orchestra meets every Friday and Sunday when the children have days off from school. Despite a lower turnout on a recent Friday due to exams, around 50 children and adolescents gathered in a circle.

Marwa, the lead bassist, stood next to a group of boys of around 6 years old fiddling with their violins, listening to Ibrahim’s instructions.

As the U.N.-administered schools that the children attend don’t provide recreational activities, the project was initially quite controversial.

“In the beginning, it was difficult because some people thought music was ‘haram,’” said Mahmoud Ahmad Zeidan, director of the NGO Beit Atfal Assamoud in Rashidieh.

But with time, people started appreciating the project. “Today we have good relations with the families in the camp,” Zeidan said. “They have confidence in us, and they keep sending their children here because they see how important the program is for their sense of happiness and mental well-being.”

Mental health issues are widespread among refugee youth in Lebanon, as their upbringing is often shaped by instability, unemployment and social problems.

Nearly 15 years after the project started, both the instructors and the founders agree that they have been successful in helping children overcome many such negative feelings.

“Some of the children suffered from isolation and other psychological problems, and slowly they started becoming more social, open ... and more successful in school,” Zeidan said. “Children who couldn’t express themselves before suddenly started to.”

Ibrahim said that the children had become surer of themselves.

“By being involved in this project, they start knowing themselves and what they want. They make decisions, like ‘I want this instrument.’”

The project is structured in a way that students eventually take on roles as assistant teachers, social workers or activity leaders.

Zeidan, who has three sons who are or have been involved in the project, explained what an incredible effect taking on the responsibilities of a teaching assistant can have on an adolescents.

Children in exile are often “deprived of many possibilities to take control of the development of their own life,” Storsve said in an article on the topic. He added that stepping into different roles “will partly challenge the limits they usually meet and ... will open new possibilities and thus a hope about how to shape their own future.”

Raed no longer lives in Rashidieh, but in nearby Tyre. He is in his senior year at university, studying to become an engineer.

Every Friday and Sunday he goes back to the camp to teach.

“The most important thing I learned from the project and what I teach my students is that music is love. Through music you can change anything negative, like experiences the children face in their daily life, into something positive,” Raed said.

Zeidan explained that the benefits for the children’s language skills are a result of their exposure to the global language of music, which brings them closer to other cultures.

“The participants [have become] very open-minded, open to other cultures, other societies and languages,” he said.

Travel opportunities have also given the participants first-hand experience of other cultures. Zeidan’s own son has traveled to Norway, Turkey and Italy as part of the project.

“We also had students from the Norwegian Academy of Music coming to Rashidieh annually since 2005,” Storsve told The Daily Star.

These visits, however, have been put on hold since Norwegian authorities started tightening security routines, forcing public institutions to adhere to its Foreign Ministry’s travel advice, which warns against travel to southern Lebanon.

Storsve and his colleagues are committed to restarting the exchange program.

The project is also facing financial challenges, Ibrahim said.

When NORWAC stopped funding the project, another organization stepped in. Now, however, this funding has now dried up as well.

“Today we rely on support from people who donate on a more individual level ... our project is expensive, because of the salaries of the [paid] teachers, fixing of the equipment, electricity, sound connections and cables,” Ibrahim said.

But despite the demands of the project, the difference it makes to the lives of the children is perhaps immeasurable. “I am so thankful for the people who have supported us so far and made us able to support the Palestinian children, to develop their skills and prevent them from getting lost. It’s the best possible way to be there for them.”