Arizona Republic
November 20, 2006

Author: Michael Senft, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 5

The clubhouse of the west Phoenix apartment complex is a cacophony of noise and color as two dozen refugees from the war-torn central African nation of Burundi gather, seeking company in their common experiences.

Old ladies in native garb try to control children wearing secondhand clothes, scolding them in French and their native Kirundi, punctuated with occasional snatches of English.

But the group quiets when music therapist Luciana Dafonseca passes out drums.

Then the room fills with sound again as the group starts beating out rhythms, reconnecting to their heritage through the pulse of the music.

Children armed with shakers dance and, one by one, smiles creep over the worn faces.

One young man picks up a guitar and starts strumming chords, singing in his native language.

Dafonseca smiles.

"There's always somebody in the group who knows how to play the guitar," she says.

The members are among more than 200 Burundi refugees living in the Valley.

Their weekly music group is a new program the International Rescue Committee is using to help the refugees cope with the trauma of relocation, said IRC Mental Health Coordinator Amal Mustafa.

They no longer have to worry about being caught in the crossfire of clashes between the Tutsi government and the rebel Hutus, but the Valley's growing population of African refugees still faces many hardships. And through music, they are finding the strength to survive in an alien land.

"We just started in August, but we're very happy with the success so far,"
Mustafa says.

"We have different groups. This one is made up of people who have recently arrived."

Refugee concert

Today, this small group of Burundi refugees will travel to the Marquee Theatre to hear Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. The concert is more than a field trip.

Members will see a band that is testimony to the healing power of music.

The All Stars, formed by Sierra Leone musicians in a refugee camp in Guinea, is performing a benefit concert for the IRC.

Promoter Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents is donating tickets to the Valley refugee community.

"We are really excited for this concert," says Carla Sandine of the IRC.
"This will be a special evening for the refugees."

The Burundi refugees in the Valley agree.

When asked during the drum session who would be attending the concert, everyone's hand shot up.

"They are refugees like me," Francisco Sayumwe says through a translator.

"They understand."

Professional status

The show is a change of pace for the band, as well.

The group, which released its debut CD, Living Like a Refugee, in September, has been playing high-profile gigs such as the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee and attracting fans such as Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. But they haven't done many benefits.

"We did one at a place in Vermont, I think," says All Stars leader Reuben Koroma. "But we don't get the chance to play for refugees in America often."

A professional musician from the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, Koroma picked up an old guitar in 1998 to entertain his fellow refugees. He was soon joined by others living in the camp.

"There isn't much to do, and spirits get very low. We tried to bring some joy to our fellow refugees," Koroma says.

Although the camps are made up of refugees from several African nations, Koroma found his music brought the diverse cultures together.

"(Music) truly is the international language," he says.

Finding way in Valley

The IRC is the largest of four refugee relief organizations working in the Valley, placing an average of 500 refugees in the Phoenix area per year.
There are more than 1,500 West African refugees and more than 200 from Burundi living in the Valley.

"When people get here they literally have nothing," Sandine says. "We help them get settled. The goal is to make them independent and self-sufficient as soon as possible. It is sometimes hard to find nice places that are willing to take refugees, especially since we try to keep them near our offices. And because they have spent so much time in camps, many don't have any concept of how to take care of their own place."

Universal language

The group works with local housing agencies, as well as the Department of Economic Security, to help incoming refugees get apartments, jobs and basic social services.

"I have been here for two months. Now I have a job and a place to live,"
Edouard Nyandwi says through a translator.

Traditional therapy and counseling are taboo in many African cultures, so the music program is a good way to help the refugee community transition into their new lives.

The Burundi refugees meet weekly for drum therapy.

"They have a big barrier they face here, language, cultural, and sometimes they get frustrated not even being able to talk," Dafonseca says. "They sing their songs from their home country, and they play percussion. It helps them express their feelings."

Dafonseca also uses song to teach the refugees some rudimentary English.

"I always start a session with a song that says 'How are you today?' It helps them learn how to greet people in English," she says.

But ultimately these sessions are about communicating with people who don't have a voice in American society.

"Music is a universal language, so no matter where you are from you can communicate with it," she says.

Memories of home

The half-hour session passes quickly. Soon the drums and shakers are gathered up, and Dafonseca starts packing her musical instruments.
Francisco, Edouard and the others help clean up before heading home.

They don't have to worry about disease, famine or warfare anymore, but they still need to deal with learning a new language, finding a job and financial stability -- trying to become self-sufficient in a foreign land. And some may not return to the group. Mustafa and Dafonseca say membership is transitive as the refugees find work and slowly start building their lives.

But the smiles are still on their faces, even as they face their hardships, because they will always have music to remind them of their homeland, as well as the hope of their new lives.

And today, they can look to the success of the Refugee All Stars as an example of what America offers.

Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

WHEN: 8 tonight.

WHERE: Marquee Theatre, 730 N. Mill Ave., Tempe.

TICKETS: $23, available at the Marquee box office. $15 tickets are also
available as a donation to the IRC for a refugee to attend the concert.

DETAILS: (480) 829-1300,

See Sidebar: "Organization has helped 45,000 resettle in Valley"

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8489.

CAPTION: 1) Valley resident Beatrice Harerimana is an African refugee who
uses music therapy to help adjust to living in the United States. 2) Pendo
Amuri plays with an American flag and with other children while their
parents attend music therapy.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: VALLEY & State
Page: B1

Copyright (c) The Arizona Republic. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the
permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: pho158306135

OpenURL Article Bookmark (right click, and copy the link location):