A song of hope for women far from home

Refugee women from Leeds who have formed a choir rehearsing with conductor   Sophie Jennings (left)    at St Peter's Buildings near to the west Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
Refugee women from Leeds who have formed a choir rehearsing with conductor Sophie Jennings (left) at St Peter's Buildings near to the west Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
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IT may be lashing with rain outside, but inside the First Floor arts space at West Yorkshire Playhouse it’s a lovely day.

The air is thick with concentration, and ten women from different countries are working together to create their own unique rendition of a favourite Bill Withers song.

“When the day that lies ahead of me seems impossible to face. When someone else instead of me always seems to know the way... Just one look at you And I know it’s gonna be... A lovely day” The cheesy lyrics of an anthemic 70s favourite suddenly take on new and very real meaning in the light of the adversity these women have known.

They meet for an hour every Friday to sing and the group’s name is Asmarina Voices. Asmarina means “united” in Eritrean, an apposite and poignant name for a small choir that numbers members from both Ethiopia and Eritrea, countries locked in war with each other for so long.

Guided by music teacher Sophie Jennings, the women move on to Your Love Keeps Liftin’ Me Higher. Sophie’s ambitious, and at one point the women are singing in five parts. Smiles wide, eyes sparkling, even the couple who don’t seem to chat much in between times are transformed.

Seasoned singers will testify that whatever the woes of the day you’ve just had, an hour or two singing banishes all care and negativity, as every brain cell is bent to the communal effort.

Between them the women of Asmarina Voices (there are more usually 12 or 15 in the choir) have experienced and/or seen terror, torture and great loss. The most awful of circumstances have driven many of them from their homeland to seek refuge in a place where human rights are respected and long-term asylum is given to those who fear for their lives if forced to go back.

Proving their stories, navigating the system and finally gaining official refugee status is a long and difficult business – although not as long as it used to be, granted. In the meantime lives are spent in a limbo of possibly being moved about by officialdom, legally unable to work, living in places that no-one else wants and sometimes with no way of contacting relatives back home who may be suffering.

In this context, escaping current difficulties and some terrible memories by making new friends through music could, without exaggeration, be called a lifeline.

The choir has been set up with six months funding (from a Home Office pot) as a community project spearheaded by West Yorkshire Playhouse and put together with the help of the Refugee Council in Leeds. The idea is one of the longer-term projects that have arisen from inside the Playhouse to promote wider engagement with the region’s refugees and asylum seekers.

“Our current production of Refugee Boy examines all sorts of questions around refugees and how their lives are lived in a strange land,“ says Ruth Hannant of WYP. “We wanted to continue with projects that involve refugees and also widen understanding of their experience.”

Emily Ntshangase-Wood is an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe whose father was hunted down and “disappeared” by Robert Mugabe’s henchmen, who also set fire to the family farm because they were political opponents. Emily has no idea where her mother is. The girl was smuggled over the border to South Africa by her uncle and finished her schooling and university education in Bulawayo, becoming an English teacher.

Her uncle continued to be politically active. One night Mugabe’s forces came and battered him to death with an array of barbaric weapons. The stricken young woman was taken away by a friend of the family and put on a plane to the UK.

The Home Office have refused Emily asylum in the UK because they say she is not Zimbabwean but South African. However, although she finished her education in South Africa, she says that all her documentation is from Zimbabwe and she speaks that country’s native languages.

She has lived for years in a state of limbo, has suffered severe mental health problems and is still fighting her case, with no money of her own and more recently totally dependent on her partner. Having said that, she now volunteers for several organisations, including one that helps people with drug and alcohol problems, and says she has met many kind, generous British people.

“I want to repay the kindness that’s been shown to me and contribute to this country. I can’t do it until I am officially a refugee.”

Roseline’s story is very different, one of longing to go home but having to stay in Britain through force of circumstance. She is from Nigeria and came to the UK in 2004 on a student visa to do a masters degree. She became ill and was found to be in kidney failure. It took a transplant to save her, and what prevents her from returning home is that she could not afford the high cost of the medication she needs to take for the rest of her life if she were to live there.

This was not initially considered to be a good enough reason to stay in the UK, and Roseline was picked up and taken to a detention centre, The Home Office opposed her application to stay, however she was given leave to remain – but the Home Office is now attempting to overturn that decision.

“I would love to be able to live in my country again,” says Roseline. “But I have no money for the drugs that stop my body from rejecting the kidney and would die. My health is the reason I have never been home since I left.” She volunteers with the Refugee Council, helping other refugees and asylum seekers.

While her status is still in question she can’t look for work that would use her university degrees in political science and many years of experience in council administration.

“I would love to go back to my family rather than having to stay here. I have made friends here, but it is hard being destitute, being unable to afford a proper home and get a job...things I had in Nigeria.”

A dozen women, a dozen stories, and a common need to make sense of the present as well as the past. For now, they support each other and sing.

Singing teacher Sophie Jennings says: “I just approach them as any other group of singers, and don’t know the details of their individual stories. Some had been in a choir before – maybe at school or church - but other hadn’t. I love their exuberance.

“They seem to have formed close bonds with each other. Just going somewhere new – somewhere they might never have thought to go before – has also improved their lives, I think. Confidence and generally feeling good through singing is something that translates to other areas of your life.”