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Music gives hope to African asylum seekers in Cyprus

NICOSIA (AFP) – Every week, the beat of African drums ricocheting through the streets of Nicosia allows Ibrahim Kamara to momentarily forget his arduous quest for asylum – even if just for the length of a song.

Kamara, 29, reached the capital of Cyprus five years ago from The Gambia. Like some new migrants to the Mediterranean island, he arrived with nothing.

Initially living with around a dozen people crammed into a tent at a park, he recalled: “It was really difficult. We didn’t have food or water,” and had to queue to drink from a public fountain.

Cyprus last year had the European Union’s (EU) highest per capita number of first-time asylum applications, according to EU data.

Strolling through the capital’s historic old town one morning, Kamara peered into the window of a music shop and was immediately hit with nostalgia at the sight of an African drum called a djembe.

“The djembe had, like me, a long road that it took from home to here in Cyprus,” he said.

Kamara could not afford to buy the instrument at the time, but was gifted one at a later date.

Ibrahim Kamara, a 29-year-old migrant who arrived to the capital of Cyprus five years ago from Gambia, plays the djembe with his students during a diversity fair in Nicosia, Cyprus. PHOTO: AFP

Inspired by the djembe, which means “to bring people together” in Bambara, a language widely used in West Africa, he set up a music workshop with the help of Project Phoenix, a European non-governmental organisation that supports migrant-led projects.

“It gave me hope again,” added Kamara, who is still waiting for a response to his asylum application.

The additional income he earns from the workshops has allowed him to rent a pleasant shared apartment.

But above all, he said, thanks to the drums he has been able “to bring the people together and connect the local communities” – migrants and Cypriots.

Kamara said it “hasn’t always been easy” in Cyprus, where nearly five per cent of the 915,000 inhabitants are asylum seekers and 1,500 requests are filed each month, according to the Cypriot government.

He recalled that one day, at a bank, “I stood next to someone in a queue; he pulled away from me and put on a mask.”

The workshops are an innovative way for Cypriots to overcome such reactions and better get to know newcomers.

“They have great capabilities to teach us their culture and who they are and what kind of talents they have,” said Panayiota Constanti, who started attending the sessions a year and a half ago.

At the same time, “we have to welcome them”, she said.

Similarly, Isaac Yossi, who goes by “Big Yoss” on stage, created the music ensemble Skyband, wanting to bridge the gap he felt with locals after arriving in the island nation three years ago from Cameroon.

Together with six other asylum seekers from his home country and the Congo, they play concerts at restaurants, weddings and private parties – fusing African rhythms with Cypriot music in an homage to a “common humanity”.

“At first, people are sceptical about seeing migrants play (music). But when I start singing in Greek, their perspective of us changes,” said Isaac, an acoustic guitar in hand at a rehearsal session after practising the popular song Tha Mai Edo by Greek artiste Konstantinos Argiros.

The singer and guitarist learned Greek, the language spoken by the majority in Cyprus, which controls the southern part of the island. Turkish is spoken in the northern area controlled by the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), only recognised by Ankara.

For Maria Demosthenous, 43, a piano teacher and Skyband’s agent, the island does not create enough opportunities for migrants to show off their talents.

“When you say ‘refugee’, you never think that these refugees can entertain you or can make good music,” said the Cypriot. “Africans have music in their souls.”

They need to be seen as individuals, the people “who they used to be before” they migrated, she said.