12 November, 2017
In the coming months, about 300 children across Lebanon will escape their daily struggles and learn to sing from an expert.
Selim Sahab is an internationally celebrated Lebanese musician and orchestra leader.
Sahab is giving children a chance to hope through song. He is teaching a large group of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian young people to be part of a singing group, or choir.
Some of the children are refugees. Many already have jobs and work as many as 12 hours a day.
The choir will hold a major performance in six months with an orchestra and large audience. Sahab created a similar children's choir in Egypt. It has performed in front of international leaders.
With help from the International Labor Organization, or ILO, and Beyond Association, a local nonprofit, Sahab held auditions across Lebanon. Around 2,000 children tried out for the choir.
The musician said he found it difficult to choose from the many children. However, he said, in the end, the choice was not about how well they learned to sing.
"I was determined to learn [teach] them how to dream about the future. They hadn't any idea about the future, about what they can be in the future."
Hope for the future
Among those who made it through the auditions is 14-year-old Syrian refugee Raed Abdo. He loves famous Arabic singers like Fairuz and Umm Kulthum.
"I was afraid the maestro would not accept me, and I was so happy when he said he liked my voice," Raed said. "Singing gives me hope for the future. If I go and sing maybe I'll become famous....and people will listen to our songs and play them in the car."
Five groups across the country will take lessons from Sahab before coming together for a joint rehearsal in December.
Working to live
Raed is from Homs, Syria. In Lebanon, he works 12-hour days as a builder to help his family pay for their small apartment. He has a dream, however, that remains distant: attending school full time.
Child labor has been a problem in Lebanon for some time. The Syrian conflict and the arrival of more Syrian refugees has worsened the situation.
This summer, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated that in addition to Lebanese and Palestinians, 180,000 Syrian children were working in the country. This includes things like selling flowers in the streets, fixing cars or digging for potatoes in the Bekaa Valley.
Hayat Osseiran works on child labor issues for ILO. He says the choir offers not only a break from the stress of such work but "a means of advocacy" -- through the public performances -- "that shows all these forgotten children need is a chance."
United by singing
As the children work with Sahab at the Beyond Association center, for a little time they can forget the social differences that divide the country.
Tensions over the Palestinian refugee population are common in Lebanon. And, more recently, there have been increased calls by some politicians to send Syrians back to Syria.
But, for now, choir members like Lebanese boy Jibril Latach can center their attention on the big performance to come. The 16-year-old wants to be singing next to his friend Raed.
Jibril is from the city of Tripoli. His neighborhood has been damaged by violence. He said he started working after his school closed during conflict a few years ago.
"When I went to work I was happy, in the beginning, because I was trying something new and felt like I was becoming an adult," he said. "But then I got tired doing my job, and I regret leaving the school."
Jibril prefers hip-hop music to the traditional Arabic singers that his friend Raed loves. But Jibril says it is not just his singing voice that is improving.
"This experience has allowed me to meet people I've not met before," he added.
I'm Alice Bryant.
John Owens reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
orchestra – n. a group of musicians who play usually classical music together and who are led by a conductor
refugee – n. someone who has been forced to leave a country because of war or for religious or political reasons
audition – n. a short performance to show the talents of someone who is being considered for a part in a film, play, choir or something else
maestro – n. the title of a person who is an expert at writing, conducting, or teaching music
stress – n. a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life
advocacy – n. the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal : the act or process of advocating something