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A music school uniting Syrian and Turkish cultures survives the massive earthquake

Ibrahim Muslimani, 30, speaks to a class about a piece of music blending different eras and languages at the Nefes Foundation for Arts and Culture, which he founded in 2016, in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Nov. 22, 2022.
Nicole Tung for NPR
Ibrahim Muslimani, 30, speaks to a class about a piece of music blending different eras and languages at the Nefes Foundation for Arts and Culture, which he founded in 2016, in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Nov. 22, 2022.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — When the powerful earthquake rocked her home in early February, 18-year-old Sidra Mohammed Ali woke up and thought of one thing: her music school — was it OK?

The next day, as survivors all over southern Turkey were taking stock of the destruction and checking on loved ones, Mohammed Ali rushed to the school, the Nefes Foundation for Arts and Culture, and took a deep breath of relief when she saw it was still standing, only having sustained some minor damage.

"This school is my sanctuary from the stress of life as a Syrian refugee in Turkey," she said. "I couldn't bear the thought of something happening to it."

The Nefes Foundation was created by Syrian and Turkish musicians in the city of Gaziantep in 2016. They have group classes where they try to revive forgotten Syrian classics and integrate Turkish and Syrian cultures with music that the two have shared for centuries.

The school also offers private music lessons on the piano and Middle Eastern instruments like the oud (a pear-shaped string instrument), the kanun (a plucked zither) and the ney (an end-blown flute).

But more than six weeks after the Feb. 6 disaster, life in the earthquake zone is far from back to normal. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake killed more than 55,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria. It damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings and left 1.5 million people without a home in Turkey alone, according to the United Nations.

The school had not been able to resume classes until last weekend, when only three students, out of many dozens, showed up to sing and play.

A comfort zone for refugees with a mission of integration

Before the earthquake, the school would be packed on weekday evenings, with students ranging from ages 6 to 50, mostly Syrian, but some Turks attended as well.

The classes are bilingual — in Turkish and Arabic. And that was especially important, according to Ibrahim Muslimani, a Syrian classical musician from Aleppo, who is the brains behind the organization.

Students including Rafeef Saffaf Oflazoglu (middle) sing a 500-year-old song from the Ottoman archives, on Nov. 22, 2022.
/ Nicole Tung for NPR
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Nicole Tung for NPR
Students including Rafeef Saffaf Oflazoglu (middle) sing a 500-year-old song from the Ottoman archives, on Nov. 22, 2022.

"Because some of the young Syrian kids have spent most of their lives here in Turkey and are more fluent in Turkish," he told NPR in November 2022. "We're trying to preserve our Syrian cultural identity but also getting to know the Turkish identity through art."

Turkey hosts 4 million refugees, the largest number of any country, according to the U.N. refugee agency. The vast majority are Syrians who fled the civil war.

In the early years of the Syrian civil war, which started in 2011, Turkey had a generous open-door policy toward Syrian refugees. But without broad integration initiatives by the Turkish government, life for many of the refugees has been difficult.

More recently, politicians in Turkey who oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have scapegoated refugees for the country's economic problems, leading to a rise in discrimination and hateful attacks.

"Racism has now, unfortunately, become part of regular life for us," Muslimani said.

But he's been working to foster integration through the school and its activities, such as concerts. "We believe that the activities we're doing here will lower the social tensions and highlight the richness of our presence together as Turks and Syrians."

Mohammed Ali, who studies medicine at university and the kanun at the music school, said last weekend the school has been a lifeline for her. She has a bleak outlook on her future, and doesn't believe that the people in Turkey will ever accept her existence in the country.

"But anytime I have an upsetting encounter, my Turkish teachers and friends here comfort me," she said.

A serious study of music

What makes the school so special for the students here is that the classes delve deeply into music appreciation and theory.

Rafeef Saffaf Oflazoglu fled Aleppo in 2013 after a near-death encounter. She comes from a family that's passionate about classical Arabic music. To be able to continue exploring her love of music in Gaziantep was priceless, she said.

The school also introduced her to centuries-old Turkish songs from the Ottoman archives, and old tunes that traveled from Istanbul to Aleppo. Studying those shared melodies made her feel closer to the culture in her new home.

Participants of a class sing a song blending Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi, during a session run by Ibrahim Muslimani, the founder and CEO of Nefes Music School, in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Nov. 22, 2022.
/ Nicole Tung for NPR
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Nicole Tung for NPR
Participants of a class sing a song blending Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi, during a session run by Ibrahim Muslimani, the founder and CEO of Nefes Music School, in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Nov. 22, 2022.

Having to go without classes after the earthquake was harder than she expected.

"After maybe 10 days, I just figured out, like the thing I miss most is art," she said, even though she was living in her car at the time. "People under trauma react in different ways. It's not just about singing, you know? It's spiritual."

For Muslimani, the earthquake was a triggering reminder of how he had lost everything a decade ago in Aleppo.

The shaking was so violent, that he feared for a moment he wouldn't survive. He thought of his two little children and the old Aleppan musical poems that he says only he knows, the ones he learned from his maestro back in Aleppo, that were passed down by generations of Aleppan classical musicians.

The civil war in Syria destroyed much of the country's cultural output, along with the lives of millions of Syrians. Muslimani has a mission to keep Aleppo's traditional form of music, al-Qudud al-Halabiya, alive from Gaziantep.

He and other Syrian artists also record music at Nefes.

"I promised my teacher that I would immortalize those precious pieces in the best form possible," he said. "With the proper orchestra and the glory that they deserve."

The future of the Nefes Foundation is at risk

The earthquake profoundly disrupted life in Gaziantep, even though the city has less damage than others in the region.

The Nefes Foundation, which survived on donations and fees for private lessons, is now at serious risk of closing down, said Muslimani. They don't have the funds to pay for next month's rent.

A banner at the front of the Nefes Music School reads "Two Languages, One Soul."
/ Nicole Tung for NPR
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Nicole Tung for NPR
A banner at the front of the Nefes Music School reads "Two Languages, One Soul."

The shock and fear of the disaster here remains, as quakes and aftershocks continue. Many of the families who fled the city still haven't come back — and neither have the students of Nefes.

The loss of thousands of homes has also created a housing crisis in the region, with rent prices more than doubling in many cities. And demand for basics like shelter, food and water remains high.

"To think of the decade of work we put into this, and the long way we have to go when it comes to integration and keeping our Syrian heritage alive," he said, pausing and blinking away tears.

"The mere thought of losing this place... it's unbearable."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.