As a child, Ari Honarvar escaped a country that outlawed music and dancing. Now, she runs dance and music circles at shelters in Tijuana for refugees who have escaped war and violence.
Man playing a guitar for children at the border
Credit: Ari Honarvar

Once every week or two, I take the hour-long trip from my home in San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico to bring donations, food, and music to refugees who have fled Central America and reside in a crowded shelter waiting to cross into the United States to start a new life. I see my son off to school and head with two musicians to Tijuana, doing our best to be back by pick-up time. At the shelter, I bring musicians to play live music and we blast popular cumbia songs, the Central American music these refugees grew up with and love, on the stereo. Kids are learning to drum and partner dance. Their creativity is flourishing and they're teaching each other different beats.

I am visiting the refugee shelter along with my team at the Northern Triangle Project to help nurture a sense of safety and home through music. I created the program with the help of a unique Colorado-based nonprofit called Musical Ambassadors of Peace (MAP) founded by Cameron Powers and Kristina Sophia. MAP ambassadors study the indigenous songs and music of countries that receive unfavorable media coverage in the U.S. and then use that music to build cross-cultural bridges between the people of those countries and their American counterparts. Under the guise of drumming and dancing, laughing, and making art, we provide refugees with practical tools to help with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. We dance with babies, so their parents can enjoy the sessions untethered. We sometimes stay afterward and offer support to those who are particularly traumatized. The stories are similar. Words crackle in the air: killed, sexual assault, violence, not safe, no choice.

Their stories are familiar to me. I grew up in post-revolution Iran at a time when women lost their right to leave the house with their hair uncovered. We were also caught in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war that would end up killing a million people. With our freedom curtailed and dealing with daily funerals, food rations, and the threat of bombs and missiles, we had very few options to relieve the mountain of stress. Playing cards and backgammon, drinking alcohol, and even parties that hosted unrelated men and women were forbidden under the new oppressive laws. Music and dancing had also become illegal. Like my ancestors, my family turned to the soul-saving power of poetry, ritual, and storytelling to survive those dark days.

Seven years into the war, at the age of 14, I took refuge in America under extraordinary circumstances and without my parents. I didn't miss the war and oppression, but I grew increasingly homesick—longed for my family and friends, the aroma of spices, and the sound of Persian language. I spent my days learning English by watching Days of Our Lives, and devoted much of my free time listening to music and dancing, which soothed my depression. Those days, I understood the need to belong to a community—something I lacked and desperately sought as a foreign teenager, and I learned the power of music and dancing—something that helped me cope with the difficult years of transition. Today, I try to bring that same sense of community and support to Central America refugees through MAP’s drum and dance circles, incorporating resilience-building techniques and rituals that helped my family survive the war.

Music at the Border
Credit: Ari Honarvar

The Healing Power of Music

When Syrian refugees began to migrate to San Diego at the height of Syrian war in 2016, Musical Ambassador, Christine Stevens, trained me to become a drum circle facilitator. With the help of another musical ambassador, Dilkhwaz Ahmed, I facilitated a drum circle for refugee women and children from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iran. We played music the participants loved and grew up with. I observed that these sessions provided a simple means to get exercise while connecting refugees with their roots through music and help them access and feel difficult emotions. Studies also confirm that both music and community rituals benefit our physical wellbeing and immune system, engendering a powerful feeling of connectedness. They reduce the effects of trauma and depression through a combination of effects on the autonomic nervous system. Since music transcends language barriers, we've found it to be a quick way to help build community. The refugees were so enthusiastic about our program that we even arranged for a few music and dance productions for the American public. The audiences were able to not only connect with the loss refugees grapple with but were also moved by the sense of belonging these events created.

As a journalist, I cover the border crisis, including the current administration's horrific child separation policy. Like all parents I know, I can’t bear the thought of a child ripped from their parents’ arms. By this time last year, I had interviewed enough asylum-seeking parents to realize that fear and suffering were their constant companions. I knew it wasn’t enough to document and report on their plight. So I started to put together a team to bring music to refugees in Mexico.

Nilou Minovi, like me, is the mother of a young child. She has been traveling with me to Tijuana to help facilitate our sessions with refugees. We both tune into the state of parents and their children. On our way back to the U.S. border, we debrief: A baby always naps to our ruckus. Nilou receives the longest hug of her life from a child. Kids light up as they strike the drums.

Once, after a music session, a single father of two young boys told me he had fled his home after witnessing his neighbor's murder. It's a familiar story—murderers threatening witnesses, forcing them to flee. The man said he had cried the night before we arrived as he had felt despondent about his precarious situation in Tijuana and fear of what lay ahead. He said when we have our music program, he feels better for a long time. He said, back home, he was a professional musician and missed playing an instrument. On our next trip, we donated a guitar to the shelter. Besides playing for his community at night, our Central American musician friend now plays along with us.

Why We are Committed 

There are challenges to holding sessions in a refugee shelter. Things rarely go as planned. We've held sessions in rain puddles and through measles and mumps outbreaks, and the recent fires. Sometimes we don't have enough instruments for 160+ people, so we cut up pieces of plywood to strike with drumsticks. Kids were then invited to draw on the plywood as an art project. A few times, we ended up waiting in line to cross the border back to the U.S. for more than four hours. Nilou and I had to arrange for friends and family to pick up our kids from school.

Despite the challenges, I'm determined to continue this effort and extend our program to other refugee shelters in Tijuana. Refugees have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in the world and the trend is quite likely to continue well into the future. Just in the first half of 2019, we've had a record seven million climate refugees fleeing from 950 disaster events, and thousands more who have escaped war and violence. As we keep pressuring our government representatives to address this crisis and treat refugees with the dignity and humanity they deserve, my community keeps donating money, food, hygiene supplies, and other essentials to the refugee shelters. They encourage us and help us make the most of our time with refugees.

The asylum seekers stuck in Mexico tell us they need joy and hope to survive. We want to provide a little solace and help build their resilience. After all, they've left all that was precious to them behind—their home, family, friends, and their sense of belonging. They've embarked on an arduous several-month journey filled with difficulties. They know they will continue to face unbelievable challenges and uncertainties in their asylum process. Many will be deported back to the place they escaped from. But for a precious moment, they get to dance and sing with their babies.