If, like Classic Melbourne, you’ve been disheartened by events at home and in the USA, especially in relation to the treatment of refugees, there are some good news stories if you look for them. We’re proud to report that often musicians can be found at the heart of those stories, as when the (mostly poor and black) citizens of New Orleans found themselves displaced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and without means of support – their instruments destroyed along with their homes in the flood.
Faced with devastation on a mass scale, and a government apparently reluctant to act, the wonderful musical family of the Marsalises sprang into action with a fund-raiser and an “instrument drive”, the first concerted action to help the city get back on track.
Just recently I saw a documentary where the idea of bringing music to immigrant children in the USA was having a transforming effect on their lives. I wondered if anything like that was in Australia. I knew about the Asylum Seeker Choir, an initiative of Jonathon Welch, founder of the Choir of Hard Knocks. That choir even managed to attract a former Afghan Idol winner! But was there anything like an instrument drive I’d seen in the video?
I found the answer in fifteen minutes – and it was in Sydney. A “music for refugees” program so successful that its founder, Phillip Feinstein, now has his home so crammed with instruments that he’s widening the program to others in need. As he tells it:
“Being a former refugee to Australia in 1972 from the apartheid days in South Africa, I knew early on where my future was destined.
“Although I had been involved in various charitable ventures, the last 10 years of my life have been dedicated to helping refugees both in and out of detention. My initial meeting with SERCO at the Villawood Detention Centre became the start of what has proven to be a successful project – realising that stress and anxiety was a major issue for refugees and asylum seekers.
“I realised that music could be major combatant. Having been a full and part-time musician for many years I embarked on setting up programs at the centre, which initially had no instruments at all. Via the public I soon gathered a piano, drum set, some guitars and various other instruments. Until two years ago there were both adult and children in detention, so I had to diversify the programs for each. The program for children was extended to include theatre sports, puppeteering, game-playing and more.
“And each facility within the centre also needed individual music rooms, so the project of obtaining more instruments became an ongoing task and was also very successful. It should be noted that instruments in need of repair are always funded by myself, as passing on damaged instruments would be counter-productive.
“Once I realised how successful the Music for Refugees program was going I turned my attention to other detention centres throughout Australia. I knew that running everything from Sydney would be difficult, so I managed to get various Uniting Churches and Synagogues on board to act as drop-off points in other cities. That was also successful with those places taking donated instruments directly to their local detention centres. This finally happened in every capital city and some country areas. I also managed to obtain the voluntary services of some music teachers for other centres.
“One of the main problems was getting instruments to Nauru, Manus Island, Christmas Island and other outlying detention centres. This therefore relied on me sending the instruments by mail and sometimes with the assistance of SERCO. But again it was successful. I have just returned from Christmas Island where I witnessed their large music room filled with many music instruments.
“Moving the project along, I then extended the process of supplying instruments to some of the many refugees’ centres where people are not in detention. And with so many of these places now having excess instruments, I have extended the program to any refugee of asylum seekers, whether in our out of detention, to make contact if they require a free instrument.
“All along the way I have conducted many speaking engagements on the subject of Music for Refugees. At each talk I always reminded audiences that most of us Australians come from a refugee background and so should more accepting and reminded of the trauma that refugees experience.
“One of my highlights of my work was to receive a Humanitarian Award from STARTTS (Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors). Although wanting to stay out of the political arena, I have always tried to create peace between Muslims, Christians and Jews. With this goal in mind I have been writing columns for the Australasian Muslim Times.
“Where to next . . . ? I suspect I shall be channeling my energies towards the Aboriginal cause, which brings me full circle for when I left South Africa. I believe that apartheid is still running full steam in Australia.”
Editor’s note: More about Philip Feinstein, the music program, a listing of pro bono lawyers, and more is on the “music for refugees” website.