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'Refugees Got Talent' showcases Syrian performers in Egypt

The UNHCR hosted a talent show for refugees in Alexandria, offering displaced Syrians and others a rare chance to perform onstage.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — On July 9, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Alexandria celebrated World Refugee Day in coordination with the Arts School - Bibliotheca Alexandrina by organizing a show called "Refugees Got Talent."

Al-Monitor attended the show, which lasted two hours and included performances from nine Syrian bands and two South Sudanese ones on a small stage set up in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The event was a showcase of the refugees’ talents and no awards were given out. The candidates were chosen during two rounds of auditions and got to perform on stage in front of an audience.

Assir al-Madaein, the director of the UNHCR office in Alexandria, told Al-Monitor, “This day honors the talents of refugees, and they decide how to celebrate." She added, "We asked them what they would like and they proposed the idea of a talent show. The UNHCR aims to engage refugees and asylum seekers in decisions about the programs and activities it coordinates.”

Commenting on how they obtain input from refugees, she said, “This can take many forms, including questionnaires or volunteers holding discussions with refugees directly or with community centers."

Madaein told Al-Monitor, “The UNHCR and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina signed a memorandum of understanding two years ago on cooperation in the fields of culture and knowledge and to exchange refugee-related information, support and activities.”

This is the second event coordinated by the UNHCR and the Arts School, according to Narmine Maccawi, the director of the programs and activity department at the school. She told Al-Monitor, “Our first cooperation consisted of an art workshop for child refugees aged between 5 and 18 in several places like the center’s headquarters in Rushdi area, Burj al-Arab and al-Ajami to reach the biggest number of refugees. The workshops were held in 2015.”

Hisham Gabr, the director of the Arts School at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, told Al-Monitor that some of the participants are greatly talented but their skills need to be developed with practice and study. He added, “For someone to perform a complete show at the Arts School, they should have material to fill an hour and a half, like a band that can perform 20 songs.” Few get the opportunity to do such work, he lamented.

The Arts School is part of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which teaches fine arts through workshops and organizes diverse parties and exhibitions.

The different segments of the show were selected based on discussions with the performers, the UNHCR and the Soryana Center, a Syrian community service center for refugees. ​The center's head Rafaa Rifai said it helped organize the event by inviting people from various countries and cultural backgrounds to audition. The auditions happened over two phases and the top candidates were chosen to perform on that day.

Rifai told Al-Monitor, “In addition to the amateurs, we insisted on bringing Syrian guests of honor with exceptional talent.”

Milad al-Walid, a singer and oud player from Damascus who is famous in Syria, was one of the guest stars in the show. He moved to Egypt four years ago and took singing classes at the Cairo Opera House. Then he joined the opera and gave solo performances.

He told Al-Monitor, “I felt resistance within the Egyptian opera. I was excluded from several ceremonies, and then we were told that no non-Egyptian singers will participate in the show for the Egyptian Minister of Defense.”

Walid has qualified for several singing competitions like "The Voice" and "Arab Idol," but his asylum conditions prevented him from traveling to Beirut to participate. He told Al-Monitor, “I was among 'The Voice' candidates chosen to participate in the show two years ago, but I was living in Egypt without residency and if I had traveled, I would not have been able to return.”

He added, “I also qualified for the latest season of 'Arab Idol,' also filmed in Beirut, but I needed to renew my passport and could not afford the renewal fees.”

Alex Crew is a band of eight boys, aged between 12 and 16, born to refugees from South Sudan. Botros Paul, a member of the band, told Al-Monitor, “All members were born in Alexandria, and we trained and performed in Sacred Heart Church. But we feel our community does not accept what we perform. We heard about 'Refugees Got Talent' and decided to register.”

His bandmate Akoul Cornilos told Al-Monitor, “We are working on promoting the band on social media, but we need tools like cameras, earphones, a venue, training, a coach, etc.”

Madaein explained, “The economic, social and psychological situation of Syrian refugees, the majority of whom live in Alexandria and the provinces on the northern coast, is getting worse. Nevertheless, despite the economic challenges in Egypt, there are some positive aspects like the generally warm relations between Syrian refugees and their Egyptian hosts. Syrians feel welcome in Egypt, and that incentivizes them to be productive despite their temporary residency.”

About 40,000 out of 208,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt are living in Alexandria and the north coast governorates, according to UNHCR. Madaein said, “The UNHCR is still offering financial support for refugees, but the budget is dropping yearly.”

Talented young refugees face major challenges, not only in making a name for themselves as performers but also overcoming the economic odds that stand in the way of their ambition.

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