Bringing Music to Newcomers and Refugees

“Music was all we had,” says Nour, co-founder of Music from Hope, a Toronto-based artist collective that works with newcomer and refugee children and is the recipient of a TAC Newcomer & Refugee Arts Engagement grant. “Music had been our source of income in Syria. It has been our source of income since the past 11 to 12 years. We don’t know what else to do.”

Nour immigrated to Canada in 2017 with her partner Tarek. Tarek is a flamenco guitarist while Nour is a percussionist. “It's not easy to integrate your career, your learnings into Canada,” says Tarek. “We play traditional Arabic music,” says Tarek. Their band, Diar, seeks to revive historic Arabic music, presenting it through a contemporary lens. They both talk about the preference that is given to “Canadian Experience” by employers and the struggles common to many newcomers and refugees.    

“You have to be super-friendly and keep on trying to make friends, to make new connections,” says Nour. Determined to continue their career in music, Nour and Tarek worked energetically, moving between different community organizations, agreeing to volunteer wherever they could. In Syria and then in Lebanon, where they had lived temporarily before moving to Canada they had worked with children, organizing workshops around music; using music to introduce children to art, to empower children, and to create a sense of community. They wanted to bring in their experiences of working with children in Syria and Lebanon and take it to newcomer and refugee children in Toronto. This led to the founding of Music from Hope. 

  • photograph of several children standing in a room with an adult male who is conducting a movement class
    Music From Hope
  • five people are in the foreground of the photograph. One woman in a hijab and three men are seated playing handheld drums. One man stands facing them and is playing a cowbell.
    Music From Hope
  • A man holding a small drum, is seated conducting a music workshop. four children sit in front of him looking in the direction he is pointing. They are all smiling and seem to be having fun
    Music From Hope
  • several children stand in a circle. One person plays a tambourine
    Music From Hope
  • a woman with a tambourine sits in the middle of a large circle of men women and children in a room. The walls are painted with a mural of a dark sky with stars and planets.
    Music From Hope
  • photograph of several musical instruments placed on a polished floor
    Music From Hope

“We don’t teach kids music,” Tarek clarifies. In workshops the children are given the freedom to discover their instruments, to make their own sounds out of them. “It's all about having fun,” says Tarek. Tarek and Nour talk about how kids are shy initially, sitting quietly without much engagement. It takes them a little while to open up with them and other kids, all of whom are either newcomers or refugees. Workshops provide children an avenue to make new friendships, something they know from their own experience, is hard for newcomers and refugees. 

For Tarek and Nour, the story of Music from Hope is interconnected with their personal story. Through their collective they want to provide for children the sense of community that they struggled to find in their initial years. Eventually through some of the friends that they were able to make, they discovered Neighbourhood Arts Network (NAN), an initiative of Toronto Arts Foundation that connects artists, arts organizations, arts workers, and community agencies throughout the city. NAN provided for them an avenue to meet other newcomer and refugee artists. They also received NAN’s RBC Arts Access Award in 2018 and 2019. The award is designed to support newcomer artists across Toronto. 

In 2019 they both received Toronto Arts Council’s (TAC) Newcomer & Refugee Artist Mentorship grant. The grant allowed them to work (separately) with individual mentors who further helped them in forming new connections and developing some of the subskills they needed to succeed as musicians in Toronto. The following year they applied for and received our Newcomer & Refugee Arts Engagement grant. The grant provides funding to organizations and collectives that engage newcomers and refugees through the arts, supporting the integration and inclusion of newcomer communities to Toronto. This grant was their first for their collective, Music from Hope. “(Getting the grant) really encouraged us. It pushed us to trust ourselves,” says Nour. 

Tarek and Nour have also been expanding the boundaries of their own artistic practices in the last couple of years. In collaboration with artists of Pakistani, Iranian and Arabic origin, they are working on a music project that Tarek defines as “journey to the east.” But this is not just a story of the “east.” This is a story of contemporary Toronto, a reflection of its multicultural-culturalism, a city that welcomes thousands of newcomers and refugees every year, a city that we proudly serve.

All photos courtesy Music From Hope