When coming from such distant lands, it can be hard to find a common language. But a new choir has found the solution in music.
It’s a common method used in language classes: listening to songs, and then talking about the lyrics and meanings - a cultural as well as linguistic lesson.
But music teacher Hanna Mattebo has taken the concept a bit further and not only are her Swedish language students discussing the music, they’re also now also performing it.
Mattebo has been conducting a choir made up of asylum seekers and Swedish school-age teens since last year, merging the groups to perform together in local concerts and blending their voices as well as their varied backgrounds.
She tells The Local that at first she had started working with residents of the Björnforsen and Gideåbruk asylum centres, spending a couple hours using music as part of teaching Swedish.
They started with simple traditional children’s songs, discussing not only the lyrics but also the musical theory behind the tunes.
To Mattebo’s surprise, the kids’ songs started to catch on outside the classroom.
"I found out that people were getting really interested in learning and singing the songs," she tells The Local. "Some guys took it very seriously and they started to practice a lot on their own and learn the songs really fast."
From classroom to centre stage
The group started out singing songs like Björnen sover (The bear is sleeping) and En sockerbagare (The pastry chef) and organized a small concert at an asylum camp.
Though the students from the asylum centre had mostly never had singing lessons, let alone performed before, they were eager to start doing shows outside of the centres and sing more complex songs.
Soon Mattebo decided to turn this enthusiasm into something more than a language lesson, and she founded a choir merged with the students at the school where she teaches music.
The Syrian choir members include a hairdresser, an aspiring engineer and a scuba diver - 27-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim from Daraa who now works with the coast guard in Örnsköldsvik.
But though their life experiences are very different from those of the Swedish students, they say they have bonded with their fellow musicians.
"We feel like the experience is really great and very important to us," wrote Ibrahim and other Syrian singers in a statement to The Local.
"The feeling of ‘a bunch of refugees’ has faded away. We are all together, side-by-side and understand each other."
Their backgrounds have also played a part in deciding the music for the performances. One of the songs they sing, Tänk dig (Imagine) by Darin, is about wishing for a world without borders and fences, without conflicts and walls, Mattebo explains. It imagines a place where people don’t judge one another.
Another song, Ringar på vattnet (Ripples in the water) by Kedjan, is about how one person taking the first step to do something has a resonating effect that can influence others to make change.
The group even performs a song by Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber, called Pray, which Mattebo says reflects how refugees have seen "people suffering, children starving and innocent people dying" but still want to pray amid the hopelessness.
"It hurts me so much when I think about them and what they’ve been through, and they still keep waiting and waiting [for their asylum decisions]," Mattebo says. "I cry a lot when we talk about that or when it crosses my mind."
'Hope for the future'
Together with the music school students, the choir has now given three concerts, one of which included another choral group of 20 adult amateur singers. And they have more gigs lined up for the summer.
"With these guys, we have become a really intimate group of friends, and I love when we go for concerts, or hang out spending many hours together – we sing, laugh and enjoy life. They make me so happy," Mattebo gushes.
"Above all, these guys in the Friheten Choir make me so proud. They are incredible, so brave and open to everything. They have absolutely changed me, for the better."
And for the Syrian singers, Mattebo and the choir have become much bigger than the original teaching exercise.
"These moments give us much hope for the future, and we feel great love from the choir members and every audience we meet," they wrote in the statement.
"Hanna is not only a teacher, for us she’s a really good friend with a big heart."
"By singing with Swedes," adds Ibrahim, "It feels like we are showing our appreciation to Sweden – and by going to new places and meeting people, we learn the language and understand the society better."
Hanna Mattebo. Photo: Private
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