Akkar, Lebanon – “Oh, Qusayr! Oh, you proud city. Oh, you spring of freedom. I miss you so much. We’ve had enough of humiliation and poverty. I miss hanging around in your streets and sleeping in your hands.”
These are the poetic words of Qosay, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee and member of teenage rap group The Homsies. When he’s rapping he is eloquent and fluid, but face-to-face he stumbles over his words and blushes, as awkward and insecure as any young adolescent forced to operate in an adult world.
Qosay grew up in Qusayr, near Homs, with his parents and his younger sister Hiyam, but when his father was killed the family was forced to flee Syria. That was three years ago. Today, Qosay and his family live in an informal tented settlement near Akkar, in the north of Lebanon.
Qosay and two friends, 14-year-olds Mustafa and Qotiba, who also hail from Qusayr, started rapping together two years ago. Mimicking the three or four Syrian rap songs that they’d seen on YouTube, they would perform for fun in the camp or at the Akkar Academic Centre, a charity school for refugee children sponsored by NGO Malak and located close to their camp near Minyara.
Until they met Scottish aid worker Tony Collins, rapping was simply a fun way to pass the time. But with the help of Collins, and two new female band members, they now hope to transform it into a way of earning money in a country where Syrian refugees face increasingly dire living and working conditions.
Collins first visited the Akkar Academic Centre in September 2015. He was playing his bagpipes to entertain the children when the boys started rapping. Impressed with their skill, he returned to Scotland where he founded a charity called Mishwar Amal, which aims to help Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon develop their talents.
Mishwar Amal organises day trips for children in the Syrian and Palestinian camps, as well as running two film clubs, setting up a shared bicycle hub and organising recording sessions for The Homsies and young musicians from the nearby Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared.
“We don’t want to be an NGO that comes in, spends money on things and goes,” Collins says. “We want to be able to work with people who live in the camps and help them do it for themselves. Ideally, with every project, I’d like to be able to invest a bit, help get it running and then be able to leave projects that are successful so that they take on a life of their own.”
Today, The Homsies are a group of five. The three boys now rap with two girls, Qosay’s 14-year-old sister Hiyam and 15-year-old Arwa, who dreams of becoming an electrical engineer. Crowded into the school’s makeshift music room, a dimly lit port-a-cabin full of battered instruments and rickety music stands, the five teenagers giggle together as they tease Collins and make a din on the drum kit.
“My friend Arwa and I saw rappers singing on YouTube and liked it a lot and we decided we wanted to try,” says Hiyam, who hopes to study art and music therapy. “We love the idea of using our songs to send a message to the world. We want to tell the world that it’s true that we’re Syrian and we have been forced to leave our country but we won’t give up and we will never stop doing what we love.”
Before Collins’ arrival, the boys used to rap without any accompaniment, but with his help they have written their own lyrics and put them to music, using original backing tracks which Collins mixed for them in a makeshift recording studio in one of the school’s port-a-cabins.
The three finished tracks are now available for download from Mishwar Amal’s website at a cost of $1 each. Fifty percent of the profits go to the charity to support its projects and the other half goes to The Homsies. So far, they have earned $300, a significant sum for teenagers who work in the fields at weekends for a few dollars a day.
Asked what they want to spend their share of the earnings on, the rappers throw out ideas, quickly collapsing into giggles. “Ice cream!” shouts Hiyam. “No, chocolate!” Arwa wants a day at an amusement park and the boys want matching outfits for The Homsies, but eventually they decide they’d like to buy another microphone so that they can record more songs.
Why can't I write my own song and let the world listen to me?
Qosay says he wants to use rap to share his views with the world. “When we started training with Tony, I started listening to lots of rap music and I thought, ‘Why can’t I write my own song and let the world listen to me?'” he says.
“I’d like the world to know that Qusayr is a beautiful city. It had everything. But now it has nothing. Everything has been destroyed by shelling and bombardments, but one day it will be rebuilt. We want to send a message of peace and of love.”
His lyrics express hope for a better future. “I miss you Qusayr. I have become like a grown up now because of all those worries,” he raps. “I swear by your love and your name, we will repaint you with love and peace, with goodness and security.”
The song the two girls have written together is more political, a rebuke to the world for ignoring the plight of the Syrian people. But, at the same time, it expresses the simple wishes of two girls whose childhoods were abruptly cut short.