“Music is the universal language and creates an environment that takes people outside of the situation they’re living in momentarily,” says Dee Isaacs as she organises a collaborative concert which will bring children from the Ritsona refugee camp in Greece together for a musical celebration with Cellos for Change, an international ensemble of cellists set up by Dee and a recent graduate of Music, Viola Migone.
Ritsona is a Long-Term Accommodation Site situated just north of Athens and currently hosts around 1,200 refugees. The camp, which has a capacity for around 4,000 residents, was first set up by the Red Crescent and the Greek Red Cross in 2016 in response to the influx of Syrians fleeing war. It is now one of the biggest camps on the Greek mainland, playing a key role in providing a settlement for displaced people who have fled their countries.
Young people aged from four to seventeen years old are given the option to attend local schools in Chalkida – the nearest urban destination – and, as part of a UNICEF programme on children’s education, are given English and Greek lessons, as well as recreational activities.
Dee has been working in Ritsona since 2021 as part of her Windows on the World developmental project which contains five multi-art workshop programmes, each one related to music and another art form such as music and puppetry; music and visual art and music and performance.
The project is in collaboration with Solidarity Now, the only non-governmental organisation still operating in the camp, and tracks how music has impacted the children.
The benefits of music
“I don’t think we can underestimate the challenges for children – not only that they’ve left home, but they’re living in confined spaces in a country where they don’t speak the language and with other families and cultural groups around them,” Dee says.
“There’s a lot of disparate elements and even getting them to work together can be difficult. Sometimes children working with me have really challenging behaviour but over time they learn to cooperate, to have empathy for others and to express themselves. These are all such valuable attributes for their future.
“Obviously, we know from research that music has huge benefits for children who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when they’ve experienced really traumatic situations such as this. Foremost music brings solace and with it both psychological and physiological impact.
Dee has worked with more than 100 children of different nationalities and the concert in Athens Conservatoire on 6 November will feature around 25 young people from the camp ranging from ages six to sixteen.
The programme of music includes original songs composed by Dee and traditional songs from around the world.
Building a community
Dee says the main challenges she faces when teaching music in the camp are the language barrier and cultural differences.
“Syrian children are vastly different to Congolese children and they are the two predominant groups at the moment,” she explains. “However, there are lots of different nationalities who end up living together in Ritsona – when we sing together those differences become irrelevant. Our common ground is music.”
Dee started working in Greece in 2016 at the height of the European migration crisis, working with the Leros Solidarity Network. Leros is a small island in the Dodecanese. As refugees were transferred to the mainland, she continued her work there.
“In Greece, two to two and a half years for your asylum application to be reviewed is quite normal,” she says. “There are babies born in camps and families growing up there. Children that I met in Leros, I later met again four years later in the Oinofyta camp. Sometimes they came to me still remembering the songs we had sung in past years.”
Dee is now writing a creative arts manual, which will be co-published by the University and Solidarity Now in 2024.
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