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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Refugees Come to America--To Sing!

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One of my more memorable cases involved testimony from my client's uncle, a well-known singer from Ethiopia who had been living in exile in Sweden and the U.S. since 1974. He was testifying about conditions in Ethiopia and whether it was safe for his nephew (my client) to return home. He mentioned that even after 40 years away, many of his songs were about Ethiopia. I asked him about his feeling towards his homeland. "I love my country," he responded. Did he want to return? "If I could, I would return tomorrow." It's a beautiful and sad testament to a life lived in exile, and it is not an uncommon story.
The Refugee All Stars embody the old proverb, "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward." (Balboa 3:16).

It seems there is a natural connection between exile and art. Some artists are forced into exile after their art offends the powers that be. Others create art to remember their previous lives or to help heal themselves and their loved ones. I suppose there are as many motivations for art as there are artists, but memories of a homeland lost are a particularly powerful muse.

In that vein, one of my favorite musicians is Enrico Macias, an Algerian Jew who had to leave his country during the war of independence in 1961. He has not returned to Algeria since, but many of his songs reference his homeland and the loss he experienced by leaving.


Recently, I've learned about a band called the Refugee All Stars, which is currently touring American (their schedule is here). Members of the band are from Sierra Leone, and their story is inspiring:

Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.

Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.

Now, the band tours worldwide and works with many well-known musicians and producers. They have also performed benefits for Amnesty International and the World Food Program, among others.

Like many people who have experienced war and exile--including many of my clients--it seems that the band members' desire to carry on with their lives and work to improve the world has not been dimmed:

The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

Given the world's current refugee situation and all the problems in the U.S. asylum system, optimism is in short supply. But it's needed now more than ever.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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