El Sistema Greece: Musical Hope for Refugee Children

by Daniela Peña  (Edited by Roslyn Raney)

Anis Barnat lives most of the times in Athens where he founded El Sistema Greece, a free music program for the children in refugee camps and at-risk children in Greece. After his studies, Anis worked at the French Embassy in the USA as Deputy Cultural Attaché. He was then appointed General Manager of the Maîtrise de Radio France in Paris. Anis has always been interested in education and social change through music. He was a professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris for the topic “Music and Politics”. In his current position at Askonas Holt, he is responsible for all the Venezuelan Sistema projects and organizing all the orchestra and choir tours of – amongst others – the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela with Gustavo Dudamel that has inspired him to found El Sistema Greece.

What inspired you to create El Sistema Greece?

Europe is facing the largest refugee crisis of the century and Greece is one of the most affected countries. The bureaucratic process for the asylum requests is long and very slow, while the structures that should receive and protect the migrants “temporarily” finally become long-lasting – but inadequate – residencies. According to the UNHCR, there are still more than 60,000 migrants today in Greece of which half are children. This refugee crisis is not only a Greek problem: it is a global issue.

El Sistema Greece started in August 2016, with the general goal of healing the suffering of the most fragile victims of modern migrations: children and youngsters in the refugee camps in Greece. Through the enjoyment of music making, the programme aims to train them to become important human resources for the camps and for their communities; to encourage them and to uplift their self-esteem and their will to move on to a more dignified life, in order to foster their possibility to be properly reinserted in society.

El Sistema Greece was born as an idea which Anis Barnat had after his work as a volunteer in Lesvos, while the same idea of supporting the refugee communities with music was being pursued by Sophie Lamprou and the Impact Hub Athens team in Athens since 2015, as the refugee and financial crisis in Greece was escalating. The two individuals came together to join forces for the common purpose of bringing people together through music and building confidence and solid opportunities for the migrants.

How is El Sistema Greece formed (number of students, instruments, choirs, etc.) and how is the work team formed?

More than 600 children have benefited from the music lessons, and we now have on a daily basis 285 students taking our classes. We offer 26 hours per week of regular, structured leisure and educational musical activities, in a welcoming, respectful and motivating environment in 6 locations; we organize concerts and gatherings mixing refugees and Greeks and we involve all communities in the performances; we have developed a pedagogical model and a Teaching System for Refugee Camps & Migrant Communities that can be replicated and adapted in any other refugee camps in the world.

We commission new pieces to create a “universal repertoire”, with pieces belonging to many different cultures, arranged in a special way that makes them usable everywhere under very basic performing conditions. This repertoire will be made available at no cost on the El Sistema Greece website.

El Sistema Greece Team

The core administrative team is composed of 5 people, we also rely on several long-term committed volunteers who have specific missions and bring their talents to El Sistema Greece. The pedagogical team includes seven teachers: Antigoni Keretzi, Anna Mouzaki, Nikos Ziaziaris, Stella Lessi, Sofia Malama, Emiliani Paradisi and Tzempen Klapakis, a pedagogic coordinator Panagiotis Tsiridis and a pedagogy committee of three people. We invite on a regular basis maestros from other countries to engage in discussion with the teachers and bring their experience to our activities. We are also grateful to all the international artists that support El Sistema Greece and offer their time and energy to the development of El Sistema Greece, amongst them Joyce DiDonato and Il pomo d’oro ensemble. Last but not least, we hire translators/educators from the refugee communities to help us during the lessons and to make sure that communication is efficient everywhere El Sistema Greece is present.

What tools do you use for repertoire search and selection?

The repertoire is chosen collectively by the teachers of El Sistema Greece, in coordination with the pedagogic committee. We have also gathered, thanks to our friends everywhere in the world, a music library that consists of music from El Sistema Venezuela, the Vienna Boys Choir, the Maîtrise de Radio France, Sound of Palestine and many more. We have also commissioned many pieces for our choir and orchestra: Julien Joubert composed the opera Mahdi and the Kite opera which was awarded a prize at the 2017 Global Education Innovation Award; Alexandros Markeas composed Taxidi that was premiered by Sistema Europe Youth Orchestra at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens during the Hellenic Festival, the largest music festival in Greece. We commission new pieces for the future for a project we have with Carnegie Hall in New York.

What have been the challenges to overcome during the development of the Music Program?

Communication surely was, and still is, one of the biggest issues affecting smooth functioning of the classes. We have overcome the problem by having translators to and from Arabic and Farsi/Kurdish. We have one reference person in each camp plus young volunteers who help out.

Continuous changes in the camps/NGOs/volunteers are also a major challenge: life inside the camps is not predictable. Flexibility, negotiation and multiple resources are necessary to overcome these changes and make things go forward, in spite of adversities.

In the music lessons, for the teachers the challenges are numerous:

  • The group: we cannot say that we have a “group” as we never know if a student in our programme will return the next day, due to the administrative process of seeking asylum;
  • The discipline: many of the students have not been to school for a long time so it is difficult to have a proper studious environment at first.

What has been your greatest satisfaction throughout the development of this Music Program?

The children come back to the lessons and we see them smile before entering the classes and after leaving the lessons. This is the greatest satisfaction we can hope for!

What indicators and factors define the success of El Sistema Greece?

We make music and beauty available to all these children through structured artistic educational group activities, regardless of nationality, color of skin or religion. We have witnessed that, in return, it inspires new hope for children and families. We have proceeded with the same teaching methods in the cities for the population that does not have access to cultural institutions, with the same successes.

The empowerment facilitates the building of a global community, the awareness of each one’s uniqueness and talent, while respecting the common structure that is the group, understanding each other and developing mutual respect. By teaching values like leadership, peer solidarity and teamwork, El Sistema Greece prepares these children and youths for inclusion in the cultural community in Greece or in other countries where they may live in the future. Our program is thought for improving the children’s life in the camps and in the poor neighborhoods and for preparing them for a world they need to be included in.

What are the most important goals you want to achieve with your work within El Sistema Greece?

El Sistema Greece’s first and most important mission is to heal the emotional injuries of children in the refugee camps and to assist with their integration. We want to make music and beauty available to all these children through structured artistic educational group activities, regardless of nationality or religion. We hope this will in turn inspire new hope for children and families as these young people once again find joy in a playful yet structured learning environment. By working and making music in a peaceful community setting, the ultimate goal is to bring these children self-esteem and lift their spirits while fostering their faith in other human beings.

The general goal of the programme is to train children and young refugees in Greece to become important human resources for the camps and for their communities; to encourage them through music and to uplift their self-esteem and their will to move on to a more dignified life, in order to help reintegrate them into society. The second main objective of the program is building bridges with the Greek children and local communities: fostering understanding, combating prejudice and building solidarity across nationalities, classes and races are important factors for lasting social integration. These goals will be obtained by teaching the children and youth values like leadership, peer solidarity, self-esteem and teamwork; all these skills will be fostered by means of choral music classes and through the aesthetic enjoyment of music.

How have social networks used to connect with other musical programs around the world?

We definitely support each other in every possible way: we follow each other on social media, share inspiring stories, or retweet and repost content that matters in the global perspective – those are the stories everyone should know about. Social media are a very useful means of communicating our message with the entire world. On top of that, music is a powerful tool on any platform!

What would you say to other teachers and leaders of El Sistema around the world?

Music and art are powerful tools for creating self-esteem and community spirit: for 43 years, the Venezuelan programme for youth and children’s orchestras has demonstrated the power of music in social inclusion. Now present in 65 countries all over the world, El Sistema’s pedagogical methods have developed a sustainable educational, social and artistic model. We have a vision of a world where borders and prejudices about race, culture, religion and sex no longer exist; where war no longer exists, thanks to understanding each other’s cultures. The world we envision is one where children are protected and motivated to develop their skills and creativity; where communities are open and welcome those in need.

Visit El Sistema Greece Website

Anis Barnat