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Culture Report: Bringing Music and Dance to Asylum Seekers, One Drumbeat at a Time

Local refugee Ari Honarvar works to foster belonging, one drumbeat at a time. / Photo by Ari Honarvar

“We’re building bridges, musical and poetry bridges, where the diplomatic bridges have collapsed,” said Ari Honarvar, who works with Musical Ambassadors for Peace [1]. She’s trained as a facilitator to lead drumming and dancing circles among fellow refugees.

Honarvar’s work, often centered in El Cajon’s vibrant refugee communities, recently brought her to the U.S.-Mexico border. As migrant caravans from Central America began arriving in Tijuana, Honarvar, along with volunteers from Musical Ambassadors for Peace and the refugee-led organization License to Freedom [2], took to the border with clothes, diapers, upwards of 350 gyros sandwiches, and, of course, drums.

Tensions at the border escalated over the holiday weekend [3] when a group of individuals seeking asylum in the United States marched towards the San Ysidro Port of Entry and U.S. Border Patrol agents fired tear gas canisters into Mexico, leading to an hours-long closure at one of the world’s busiest crossings.

When approaching new refugees, Honarvar and her group always ask themselves whether that group is settled, and whether their physical needs are being met.

“Most of what they need is food, medicine, shelter,” she said. “Once that’s taken care of, you can address the mental health of the group. They need to get settled before we can start drumming and dancing with them.”

Honarvar came to the United States as a refugee herself when she was 14, from Iran. “I felt very cut off,” she said. “I was very homesick and depressed, and didn’t really know how to talk about it.” Groups like Musical Ambassadors for Peace and others supporting refugees and migrants from conflict zones were not present for her at the time.

Local refugee Ari Honarvar works to foster belonging, one drumbeat at a time. / Photo by Ari Honarvar

When Honarvar first got involved with Musical Ambassadors for Peace, it was at the height of the Syrian conflict. She asked if she could start a drum circle in El Cajon with the large populations of refugees there, generally from conflict zones in the Middle East.

“I’m not a drummer. I had very little musical talent or skills,” she said.

Her facilitation training, and her philosophy when leading drum and dance circles with traumatized groups, hinges upon both the solid scientific research [4] that music and drumming can relieve anxiety, depression and symptoms of PTSD, as well as the underlying untethered nature of being a refugee. “With the human condition, most of our problems arise from a lack of belonging,” Honarvar said.

Drumming, and dancing, she insisted, bring unison and solidarity to a group, even so far as unifying heartbeats: “It validates us as people. Once you belong, the other joyful emotions begin to emerge.”

Belonging, she also said, comes not just from dancing or drumming together, or the discussions that arise during the sessions, but also from teaching the younger generations the older songs from the culture. “I ask them if they have any musicians within them to play their indigenous songs,” Honarvar said. “I mostly work with songs that they love. It brings out their joy and self-expression.”

Local refugee Ari Honarvar is working to foster belonging. / Photo by Ari Honarvar

In October, with Honarvar’s help, Musical Ambassadors for Peace and License to Freedom partnered with Dr. Chuyun Oh at San Diego State University to present “Dance of Home.” The Refugee Dance Project at SDSU is funded by a “Projects for Public Good” grant, and the program featured dance, storytelling, singing and poetry [5].

Musical Ambassadors for Peace and License to Freedom are also in the development stages of a collaboration with the San Diego Symphony, among other endeavors.

Honarvar and her drummers recently played music with the early groups trickling in from the latest migrant caravan. The current crisis has caused Honarvar to focus almost exclusively on meeting the immediate needs of the migrants, but she knows that they will soon take their drums to some of the shelters in Tijuana again, regardless of what happens. “They really, really love to dance,” she stressed.

When asked about the role of art in crisis, Honarvar lights up. She quoted Emma Goldman, an early 20th century Russian and Jewish feminist and anarchist: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Honarvar mused that she sees art as a litmus test for a movement. “It’s hard to separate politics from the arts,” she added.

You’re reading the Culture Report [6], Voice of San Diego’s weekly collection of the region’s cultural news. For more coverage of the migrant caravan and refugees, sign up for the Border Report [7].

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