The following guest post was written by Alex Ebsary and Sasha Ingber, co-founders of Music in Exile. Submit your own story to The Kurdish Project.
We started Music in Exile to document the songs and stories of the displaced people whose lives have been forever changed by war. Today some 15 million Iraqis and Syrians have fled their towns and cities. Many are too fearful for their safety to return home.
Two Weeks in Kurdistan to Share Songs and Stories of the Displaced
The underlying philosophy of our nonprofit is that music is a language that the world understands. It can channel pain, bring joy, and hold memories intact—regardless of people’s differences. And so we packed up our cameras, microphones, and notepads and flew to Erbil in October 2016, just as Kurdistan’s Peshmerga, Iraqi Security Forces, and the international coalition began operations to liberate Mosul from ISIS.
We spent two weeks driving around the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, entering refugee and displacement camps where we recorded more than 30 musicians from different backgrounds and creeds: Kurds and Arabs, Syrians and Iraqis, Yezidis, Muslims, Christians, and atheists. They were professional musicians who had achieved fame in their communities, people who were just beginning to play instruments, and even one person who only sang songs to his wife in the morning.
Some had run from ISIS, which has upheld its so-called caliphate from ratlines and bunkers under the ancient city of Mosul for two years. Others had escaped government oppression and barrel bombs of the Syrian regime. They saw roving gangs ransack their neighbors’ houses, then realized their house would be next.
Even people who lost all of their worldly possessions invited us into their homes and offered to play hours of music. In conversation, they trusted us enough to take us back to the day they fled. And then inevitably, a generous meal of rice, chicken, vegetables, and bread would be spread out on a blanket, followed by a tray of tea. With each person, it always felt sad to say goodbye.
This was Music in Exile’s first trip, a proof-of-concept that we could find displaced musicians and publish music, stories, and photography for all to enjoy on our website. We hope to return to Kurdistan, as well as travel to other Middle Eastern countries where people have sought refuge. Our dream is to map displacement through music across the world; to share what we find with a wider audience; to preserve cultures from the ravages of distance and time.