Rt Revd Dr Alastair Redfern was Bishop of Derby from 2005 to 2018, sitting in the House of Lords. He has been a Trustee of The AMAR International Charitable Foundation since 2016 and is the convenor and chair of AMAR’s Windsor Dialogue. The following is an edited summary of his remarks at the April 2022 Windsor Dialogue Conference.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this conference, in which we are learning about ourselves, our relationships, our communities, and our ability to listen to others and be transformed by them. In working with refugee camps, we see a microcosm of what the human struggle is about, with such themes as health and wellbeing, spirituality, division, and community identity. The purpose of the panels is to examine the macro effects of this struggle and determine what kind of political values and policies we want to encourage, as well as to continue the AMAR Foundation’s example of interconnectivity, mutuality, and connecting at the grassroots level. We should ask the question: what frameworks can we help foster that don’t just let people control difficult situations but really set people free? All the way along, we trust that there is a deeper register in the human heart that music exposes—one that can bless, encourage, and brighten the future of everyone involved in this struggle.
AMAR’s Work to Date
AMAR has engaged with refugees, mental health, and music therapy, with aspirations about not just improving life in refugee camps but improving the context in which refugees are seen, treated, and developed. For many in the camps that we serve, the average stay is more than twelve years, and that is why mental health is such a significant issue. Vulnerable and displaced people dissolve their identities when they are trapped away from home, amidst other groups with whom they may not be confident. Through the Windsor Dialogue series of conferences, AMAR has pioneered the building of face-to-face medical interventions and the providing of mental wellbeing resources. Our work builds refugees’ confidence, not just in their own health and wellbeing but in their identity and the wellbeing of their community. Such confidence helps them prepare for a better future and avoid defining themselves merely as survivors trapped in limiting circumstances.
At the micro level, AMAR has been on the frontline, looking carefully at themes associated with refugees and pioneering fruitful and effective responses with real people in real time. We have done groundbreaking work with the Yazidi people to help them recapture a sense of confidence and identity and share it with others. AMAR has also worked with governments, policymakers, and businesses interested in job creation and training, and has emphasized the importance of music and the art of the human heart in refugee camps. In the process, we have seen that all elements of our work are positive and interconnected. This work not only helps people grow in difficult circumstances but also signals a positive future for them beyond the camps. Sadly, the number of refugees we work with will only grow, which means that the method we are pioneering will need more refinement and a wider audience and outreach.
Encouraging Political Policies: Critical Components of Conversation
I would like to share a few points regarding the types of conversations we should take into political channels about our work.
First, when working with refugees, it is very easy to want to hit the rescue button; naturally, people want to help other people. However, one thing that we have learned from conferences like this is that people in refugee and IDP camps want agency more than they want to be rescued. Refugees want to get back a feeling of control of their lives, and they want to contribute to society. I was struck by a woman I met a few months ago who told me, “I don’t want to be a victim with a victim’s voice. I want to be an artist.” It is important to remember that these people want to be who they want to be; they do not want to be fitted into our neat categories.
Second, we should always keep in mind the importance of human dignity; this is the common territory that unites political agents and operators, NGOs, businesses, scholars, religious leaders, governments, and those we are trying to serve. It is in our shared human dignity that we must find a common ground, a common discourse, and a common way of acting.
Third, we should take great care to express the vulnerability of refugees. Politics for most people is either the will of the majority or the will of a dictator. Therefore, minorities are always vulnerable, both in democracies and dictatorships. Refugees are doubly vulnerable because not only are they minorities but they form an even smaller minority within the world of minorities. That is why they are easily ignored, and that is why we must act with that vulnerability in mind.
My fourth point comes from author and philosopher Hannah Arendt, who said that politics are not just about providing a minimal holding framework to keep everybody happy; they are about creating a space for a richer conversation. We should ask ourselves how to involve a broader range of perspectives in these discussions because doing so will get human dignity on the agenda. Additionally, making the conversation richer will likely result not only in our proposed measures receiving the necessary signatures but also in policymakers seeing the point of the policies, developing a desire to see them through, and becoming better partners with us.
Lastly, it is important to remember that the word religion, from the Latin religare, literally means to bind together on a common journey. In that sense, religion is probably the most properly inclusive way of doing politics. This is in contrast with the conventional wisdom that religion should be kept out of politics because it introduces bias and prejudice. As religious people in this work, it is part of our vocation not just to fight for rights—which ultimately become minority interests that are largely ignored by most of the world—but to fight for a way of discourse that binds people together. I believe that way of discourse is something religion can offer to politics, and I also think it is what politics is crying out for in this age of obsessive identities, division, and bad dealing.
Connections Between Health, Mental Health, and Music
Music is powerful because it does not just connect the head and the heart: it takes us to a different place. This happens whether you attend a Tabernacle Choir performance or a Bruce Springsteen concert. The technical word I would use is transcendence. We come out of ourselves with others into a new space for mind, body, and spirit. That is the beauty of music when it comes to therapy and mental health: it takes a person out of the confines of a physical world and the limitations of ordinary mental processes and therapies. Music is a trigger into a much richer, amazing, unknown space.
However, we should be careful that the focus of music in our work is not merely personal enjoyment. We carry around music on our phones for our own therapy. That is not necessarily what we want to achieve—using music to feed ourselves and achieve only personal wellbeing. The image of a choir is helpful here: choral music is produced through cooperation and connection. Similarly, the music we use can and should help people transcend and connect with each other, just as music does in the culture and spirituality of the Yazidi people.
We should be mindful that using music to better mental health in the context of a refugee camp is not always a straightforward project. For example, we are developing a girls’ choir with the Yazidis with whom we work. The society of the Yazidis is both patriarchal and hierarchical. There are issues relating to gender roles and leadership that we have to be very sensitive towards as we pursue such endeavors. Such sensitivity and care should be present throughout our work with music therapy and participation.
Finally, I would stress the importance of music as a driving force. Music enables the rest of our lives, really. If you use music to transcend to a different space, that is not an experience that you simply walk away from: it affects you deeply. Whether you are a listener attending a concert or service, or a musician performing in an orchestra or choir, you leave the experience with a deeper sense of confidence and direction. Because music has this power, we must be very careful as we work with our Yazidi colleagues and others in developing what we call “music therapy.”
This is important work: we are trying to model how different oppressed communities can exercise agency—can come out of themselves and be players on a larger stage instead of just recipients of charity. As we design practical strategies to take to policymakers, so that this learning can feed into something much more ambitious and effective, we help give those who have been made vulnerable a better future.