As a teenager growing up in Iraqi Kurdistan, the young singer was forced to flee his homeland to escape the violence of Saddam Hussein’s rule – and the threat of execution. His only crime? Being accused of singing songs that were critical of the regime.
“I was arrested and, together with my father, had to sign a pledge that I would never sing again – not even at home with friends. If I did I would be executed,” he says.
Only 17 when he left his family behind, Nawroz spent the next nine years in exile in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, before finally settling in the UK. Now a British citizen, the 59-year-old is one of the soloists with the National Lottery-funded Citizens of the World Choir, which he joined in 2018.
This group of refugees and asylum seekers was started by a British music teacher to promote healing through music, and greater understanding of people displaced by war, famine and persecution.
But the sadness remains. After leaving home, Nawroz saw his parents only briefly on two occasions before they died – his mother as a result of Saddam’s infamous chemical attack on the Kurds – and he has lost contact with his two sisters. “I don’t have a wife, don’t have kids, don’t have that many friends – I don’t even have a dog! So the choir is like my new family,” he says.
No fewer than 28 different nationalities are represented among the choir’s 53 members. And many of them, like Nawroz, have extraordinary and often harrowing stories of the incredible hardships and dangers they faced after being forced from their homelands to find a better life elsewhere.
Founder Becky Dell, a 41-year-old classically trained musician who runs her own music academy in Greenwich, southeast London, says: “I have been totally floored many times on hearing what some of these people have been through.”
She and some friends established the choir with the help of Liberal Democrat peer Lord Roberts of Llandudno. “Attitudes towards refugees and migrants can often be distressingly negative, intolerant and dehumanising,” Becky says. “Lord Roberts was very keen to do something involving the people already in the UK that would help to counteract that by showing them in a different, positive light.”
After the word had been put out through refugee and migrant charities and social workers, 30 people turned up for the first rehearsal in 2017. “At least half of them had never sung before and some of them came from countries where singing is banned,” says Becky.
“There were no auditions and no one has ever been turned away – I didn’t want people who had already been through all sorts of trauma and stress to have to validate themselves to be in the choir.”
Prior to the first lockdown, the choir was doing around 15 gigs a year. They sang at the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s memorial (above), and have appeared at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (also above), St Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live.
“Although we obviously haven’t been able to do any gigs in person, we’ve managed to keep going throughout the pandemic – thanks mainly to the £20,000 of National Lottery funding we received,” Becky says.
The choir is one of many projects that have benefited thanks to National Lottery players, who have raised £1billion to help people across the UK during these unprecedented times.
“It enabled us to buy secondhand devices and data packages for those members in need, allowing us to carry on with online rehearsals.
“For people like Nawroz, alone in a strange country, the choir has provided a lifeline. It is rewarding for us to know we have helped to improve the lives of people who might not otherwise have much social interaction.”
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