Speaking for Ourselves

'It's given me a purpose': Refugees and asylum seekers find their voice through London choir

'It's given me a purpose': Refugees and asylum seekers find their voice through London choir

Alondra Sierra

 Migrant Voice - 'It's given me a purpose': Refugees and asylum seekers find their voice through London choir

On Saturday mornings, a choir family of refugees and asylum seekers meet at a church crypt in Hackney to sing songs that echo the beauty of their homelands.

Mothers come with their young children, while others travel long distances to be here. On this particular Saturday, one member arrives despite feeling ill.

“I can’t not come,” she says, explaining how the group fills her with an indescribable sense of belonging as a refugee.

That group is Woven Gold, a choir made up of refugees and asylum seekers who have fled persecution and found safety in London. Formed in 2007 as a therapeutic arts program under the Helen Bamber Foundation, the choir sings original songs and compositions from the members’ home countries.

The result is a coalescence of sonic traditions and languages from around the world – Arabic, English, Persian, Kurdish, to name a few – sounding in harmony.

“There’s a river flowing in my heart and it’s telling me I am somebody,” they sing together in preparation for an upcoming concert. 

Listen to a clip of the choir singing this song here

Ahmed, who has been a member of Woven Gold for eight years, was a musician in Iran before he was forced to flee his country and seek refuge in London at the age of 18. He arrived in the UK not knowing any English and without anyone to rely on. He felt alienated and alone in dealing with the systemic and mental challenges to being accepted as a refugee. 

“Going through the system puts you in a position that is, in a way, you’re trapped in it,” says Ahmed after a morning of rehearsal. “It’s this horrible circle that you go around and there’s no sense of relief.” 

For him, the process to be recognized as a refugee took nine years, a prolonged and frustrating period that involved poor National Asylum Support System (NASS) accommodation and an isolating relationship with the Home Office. 

Many refugees and asylum seekers arrive in the UK to an unfamiliar language, culture, and system. In fleeing their countries, they’ve left behind loved ones and spaces of familiarity, sources of reassurance and a sense of belonging.

In the UK, they are met with a complex asylum system that, in the year ending September 2019, only granted protection to 48% of its applicants. There’s been a sharp rise in the number of applicants waiting more than six months for a decision too, with many living in limbo for years.

“The way that the whole immigration system is in the UK, you’re hanging in the air for a very long time,” says Humera, a refugee from Pakistan and member of Woven Gold for 14 years.  

The rehearsal room inside the church crypt is home to refugees and asylum seekers who have battled through or remain suspended in the system. In spite of their situations, members feel safe in each other’s presence and encourage one another to push on.

Organizations like the Helen Bamber Foundation provide therapy to assist with trauma, but research shows that additional collective creative outlets like choir groups improve the well-being of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the process of building a new life. 

Angela, who joined Woven Gold in 2013 after her therapist advised her to do so, credits the group for keeping her afloat through the friendships formed here and the choir’s emotional support. 

“It’s given me a purpose for getting up every morning. Otherwise, I would probably stay at home and just be completely depressed all the time,” she explains. 

After joining with no prior choir experience, Angela prides herself in her newfound talent, writing songs for the group. 

Woven Gold has released two albums: “Much More Than Metal” in 2010 – its title inspired by Tree of Life, a sculpture made from weapons used in the Mozambique Civil War – and “Helen’s Song” in 2018. 

Of their music, no two tracks are the same. From smooth saxophonic openers to melancholic guitars, traditions from Burma to Kurdistan, their songs reflect the global beauty of the collective. 

Angela recalls the impact of the track “Mama,” written by member Aisha, when it first reached the group’s ears: “She just started crying because this song was about her mother and she just misses her mother and everyone started crying because we all have that shared experience. We miss people that we’ll never see again.”

Woven Gold’s singing is an outlet to express vulnerability and struggles past and present, but also an act of rebellion against circumstances that prevent refugees and asylum seekers from being in the UK, or being at all. 

Humera puts it best: “In that three minute song, I can cry all the tears I could never cry, I can scream all the screams I could never scream.”

Listen to Woven Gold here


TOP IMAGE: Woven Gold, credit: Woven Gold

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Migrant Voice
VAI, 200a Pentonville Road,
N1 9JP

Phone: +44 (0) 207 832 5824
Email: [email protected]

Registered Charity
Number: 1142963 (England and Wales); SC050970 (Scotland)

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