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Music lessons bring art, hope to refugee camps

A Palestinian music association runs schools offering musical skills and life lessons to refugee children in Lebanon and the West Bank.
Beirut, Lebanon, October 11, 2015 - Students attend a music lesson organised by the Al Kamandjati association in the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila. 

Al Kamandjati, which means "The Violinist" in Arabic, was founded in 2002 by Palestinian violist Ramzi Aburedwan, who is from the Al Amari refugee camp in Ramallah. The association aims to make music accessible to Palestinian children, particularly those living in refugee camps and villages in Palestine and Lebanon.

BEIRUT — When Daoud Hussein, a young Palestinian music student, is handed a new violin, his face lights up. He one of 70 students at the two Al-Kamandjati music schools operating in Lebanon. Since 2008, these schools in the camps of Shatila and Bourj el-Barajneh have taught students aged 8 to 18 years old. The larger Al-Kamandjati association is based in Ramallah, and at present has 500 children enrolled at its music schools in the West Bank.

The founder of the initiative, Ramzi Aburedwan, is a Palestinian from Ramallah whose life was transformed by the opportunity to study music in France. He explains that his biggest challenge now is the increased responsibility he feels for the schools. 

In the heightened tension and violence in the occupied Palestinian territories, the project has taken on even greater importance. As noted by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose lyrics are often used in Palestinian songs and featured during Al-Kamandjati performances, “Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.”

Al-Kamandjati means “the violinist” in Arabic, but more than the violin is taught at the schools. Students can also learn how to play oriental instruments as the ney, the oud and the tabla.

A boy practices in a music lesson organized by Al-Kamandjati in Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 11, 2015. (photo by Lisa Golden)

Al-Monitor met with Aburedwan following a concert by Al-Kamandjati's students at the American University of Beirut. “I always dreamed of playing a musical instrument but I never thought I would have the chance to,” he explained. Growing up during the first intifada in the West Bank, his future seemed sealed.

In 1998, thanks to a grant by the French government, he was offered the opportunity to go to France to study music at the Conservatoire National de Region d'Angers. While living abroad, his determination led him to win the 2005 DEM gold medal for playing the viola. He was equally determined to offer the same opportunity that changed his life to a new generation of Palestinians, and started work on Al-Kamandjati music Association in 2002.

For Aburedwan, hard work and pride in his art go hand in hand with professionalism. “I remember my grandfather, who worked as a manual laborer all his life, teaching me the importance of pride and respect for the work we do, regardless of and, at times, despite what it is we do. This lesson always stayed with me and I hope to transfer it to other generations at Al-Kamandjati.”

Al-Monitor visited the music schools in Shatila and Bourj el-Barajneh. The music centers in Lebanon are run in partnership with Beit Atfal Assumoud, which offers its premises for the initiative. This nongovernmental organization, originally founded in 1976 to look after orphaned Palestinian children, focuses on delivering basic social, educational and health services to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In the labyrinth of Shatila's narrow alleys, the schools' entrances are shadowed by nets of dangling electrical wires. In stark contrast to the disorder outside, within the music school's doors, discipline and order are taught together with music.

The family situations of each student differ. Some have it harder than others. The Palestinian camps suffer from a chronic lack of basic utilities, from water to electricity. Enforcing good hygiene or punctuality can be challenging where water is scarce and deadlines can be perceived as unimportant and in a place of eternal waiting. Julie Vautard, the director of the Al-Kamandjati project in Lebanon for the past three years, explains, “We don’t sanction the students if they are late but we do try to prepare them for the world outside the camps.” 

When students reach a high level of proficiency at Lebanon's Al-Kamandjati schools, the association then partners with the Beirut conservatory to pay their fees and allow them to continue their music studies.

At the camp of Bourj el-Barajneh, Al-Monitor met two such students. Zeinab Hussein, 16, plays the cello while her sister Amina, 17, plays the oud. The sisters are well aware of their good fortune to be studying music. “There are many people my age at the camp who don’t have this chance I was given,” says Amina.

Amina Hussein (L) sits with her oud and her sister Zeinab with her cello at the Al-Kamandjati association in Bourj el-Barajneh refugee camp, Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 11, 2015. (photo by Lisa Golden)

Another student at Bourj el-Barajneh, Mohammad Al Hajj Ali, 11, has made remarkable progress in just six months and his teacher, Tammam Saed, is surprised at how quickly he is learning. 

Ahmed Al Assuad, 18, plays the ney (a type of oriental flute) and is now attending the Beirut conservatory. He comes back to Al-Kamandjati to mentor the younger students as part of the agreement for students who attend the center. If they reach a high level and continue on to the conservatory, they share their training with the younger generations.

While maintaining focus and motivation can be very difficult in the camp’s living circumstances and the surrounding areas, the school offers a ray of hope and practical support. At the center in Shatila, oud player Mohammed Ali Abu Saleh, 20, is also a physics student at the Lebanese University, the country's only public institution for higher learning.

Mohammed Ali Abu Saleh started studying the oud at the Al-Kamandjati association in Shatila refugee camp four years ago, Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 11, 2015. (photo by Lisa Golden)

Funding for these initiatives is essential and over the years, Al-Kamandjati has developed a network of supporters, but there is always a need to do more. Reflecting its mission, the association is careful to deliver sustainable support for its students. While continuing to expand, its focus is to follow the students throughout their studies rather than offer short-term courses to a larger number of pupils.

In the West Bank, access to instruments is complicated by the political situation. Teaching students how to make and fix their own is another way of overcoming practical challenges posed by the Israeli occupationA project launched this summer in Lebanon aims to train a generation of instrument makers and skilled artisans who can repair instruments. It is expensive to repair them in Lebanon, which is why, until now, the work has been done in Syria, where it was less expensive and where technical expertise was more available.

Through music and hard work, Al-Kamandjati is bringing practical skills and hope to new generations of Palestinians growing up in the camps.

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