Syrian refugees in Turkey find their rhythm with Scouting
For four years Majd Elewi was a member of the Scouts in his hometown of Homs. Their Scout hut was like a second home; a place to hang out at the weekend, the walls decorated with the group’s collection of scarves and photos of their adventures. But when Syria descended into civil war, the group disbanded, and eventually Elewi was forced to flee.
As Elewi, 23, tried to adjust to a new life in Turkey – as a refugee and student – he thought his days in Scouting were over.
“I lost all my memories with the Syrian Scouts, and all my friends had separated,” he says in an email from Istanbul. “I thought it might be impossible to be a Scout again.”
But in 2014 the mechanical engineering student re-discovered his passion for Scouting, and joined the Ibn Al-Walid Scouts – a Scout group especially for Syrian refugees. Two years ago, he married Scouting with another of his passions – music – to create the Syrian Scout Brass Band, the only one in the country.
Turkey has more refugees than any country in the world, with an estimated 3.8 million Syrians living in the country’s cities and towns having fled the war in their homeland. While the local population has been mostly supportive of the newcomers, and refugees are able to work, study and get medical help, adjusting to a new life in a foreign country with unfamiliar customs is hard for many. Elewi’s band helps young people to cope with the upheaval in their lives.
“All our Scouts came because of the Syrian War so they lost a lot of precious things; their home, friends, family and society,” Elewi explains. “They faced many changes all at the same time, everything including language was different to them, so what we are focussing on is building new friends and suitable situations, breaking the wall between them and the Turkish people by Scouting, camping and all the activities that we do with the Scouting and Guiding Federation of Turkey. Also, we have a contact with their schools and make sure that they are in the education system. So we now are really like family, helping each other.”
The brass band started small – less than a handful of musicians performing simple marches – but audiences liked what they saw. Encouraged, Elewi expanded his ambitions. Now, the band entertains Scouts at campfires and events organised by the Turkish federation, as well as on international days, performing not only Turkey’s national anthem, but Syria’s too.
The project is entirely self-funded. The teenagers have what they call “a lovely box” where they each donate whatever they can each time they meet. “Everyone puts any amount of money they want with no rush at all,” Elewi says.
Only two of the Syrians had any experience of music before they joined the band – one who could play the keyboard and another the violin. Elewi, himself, plays snare and trumpet.
But the group is about so much more than technical expertise. Making music together helps the young Syrians bond, and provides a renewed sense of purpose.
“The importance of our music band is not just to improve the Scouts talents,” Elewi says. “The most important thing is that our Scouts feel they are special, (that) they have been loved by the others.”
Ward Al Afef, 17 arrived in Turkey from the southern part of Syria with his parents and younger sister. He hadn’t been a Scout at home, but being part of the band, where he plays the trumpet, has helped him settle into his new home.
“Scouts helped me find a lot of new friends that I needed because I was strange and new in this country,” he says. “Scouts gave me a supporting and loving atmosphere.”
The band shares many of their performances on their own YouTube channel . At one gathering, the campfire alight and local Scouts sat all around, the Syrians perform with gusto, beating the drums and then leaping onto the shoulders of the bandmates waiting behind them, where they lower themselves towards the ground, and continue to play, even while upside down. Big grins spread across their faces. The crowd claps and laughs as the music reaches a crescendo.
Such recognition spurs Elewi on. One of the most touching moments for the group came at the 12th Euro-Arab meeting in Istanbul in February, when Hasan Dinçer Subasi, the president of the Scouting and Guiding Federation of Turkey, told delegates the Syrian Scouts had made the Movement’s “dream come true” by forming a Scout band.
“It meant a lot to me,” says Elewi. “And to my Scouts.”