In the bustling streets of Nicosia, the sound of African drums resonates each week, offering Ibrahim Kamara a momentary respite from his challenging asylum journey.
Kamara, a 29-year-old musician from The Gambia, arrived in Cyprus five years ago with nothing, joining the ranks of other migrants seeking refuge on the Mediterranean island.
In the initial stages, Kamara lived with a dozen others in a cramped tent at a park, enduring extreme hardships. “We faced immense difficulties. There was a scarcity of food and water, and we had to wait in line to drink from a public fountain,” he recalled.
Cyprus recorded the highest per capita number of first-time asylum applications in the European Union last year, according to EU data. Against this backdrop, Kamara found solace when he caught sight of a djembe, an African drum, displayed in the window of a music shop while strolling through Nicosia’s historic old town.
“The djembe, like me, had traveled a long road from home to Cyprus,” Kamara expressed with nostalgia. Although he couldn’t afford the instrument at the time, he later received one as a gift.
Inspired by the djembe’s meaning of “bringing people together” in the Bambara language widely spoken in West Africa, Kamara collaborated with Project Phoenix, a European NGO supporting migrant-led initiatives, to establish a music workshop. “It reignited my hope,” he shared, while still awaiting a response to his asylum application.
The income generated from the workshops enabled Kamara to rent a pleasant shared apartment. However, his primary achievement lies in using the power of drums to foster connections and unite local communities, bridging the gap between migrants and Cypriots.
Kamara acknowledged that life in Cyprus hasn’t always been easy. With nearly five percent of the island’s 915,000 inhabitants being asylum seekers and 1,500 new requests filed each month, reactions can often be unwelcoming. Kamara recounted an incident at a bank where someone moved away from him and put on a mask.
The workshops serve as an innovative platform for Cypriots to overcome such reactions and genuinely understand newcomers. Panayiota Constanti, who began attending the sessions a year and a half ago, emphasized the migrants’ potential to teach Cypriots about their culture and talents. She also stressed the importance of welcoming them.
Isaac Yossi, also known as “Big Yoss” on stage, founded the music ensemble Skyband to bridge the divide he felt upon arriving in Cyprus from Cameroon three years ago. Alongside six other asylum seekers from Cameroon and the Congo, the band performs concerts blending African rhythms with Cypriot music, embracing the concept of “common humanity.”
“People are initially skeptical when they see migrants playing music. But when I sing in Greek, their perspective of us changes,” said Isaac, strumming an acoustic guitar during a rehearsal session. He had learned Greek, the language predominantly spoken in the southern part of the island controlled by the Republic of Cyprus, where Maria Demosthenous, a piano teacher and Skyband’s agent, supports their artistic endeavors.
Demosthenous believes that Cyprus doesn’t provide enough opportunities for migrants to showcase their talents. She challenges the prevailing perception that refugees can’t entertain or create good music. According to her, Africans possess music in their souls. Demosthenous emphasizes the need to see migrants as individuals and acknowledge who they were before they embarked on their migration journeys.