Poetry by refugees and migrants who moved to Oxford as children will be performed alongside new music from composers Sadie Harrison and Toby Young in a concert at Somerville this week.

The College will welcome the poets, who are pupils of Oxford Spires School, for a concert and panel discussion as part of the Orchestra of St John’s ‘Displaced Voices’ project on January 18th.

Poems by Mukahang Limbu, Shukria Rezaei and Ftoun Abou Kerech have been set to music by professional composers for the project. The songs will be performed as the Displaced Voices Song Set by the Orchestra of St John’s and mezzo-soprano Charlotte Tetley, conducted by Cayenna Ponchione, a Junior Research Fellow at Somerville.

Halema Malak, Timileyin Amusan, Merzia Qahramany and Ftoun Abou Kerech will perform additional poems to new orchestral accompaniments, devised by the authors themselves in collaboration with composer Toby Young. Young was previously Somerville’s Lecturer in Music.

Four of the young poets, pictured with conductor Cayenna Ponchione (centre) and composer Toby Young (furthest right)

The children’s poetry draws on their nostalgia for the home countries they have left behind and the difficult circumstances of their arrival in UK. Malak and Rezaei both fled from the Taliban; Malak from Afghanistan as a 10 year old who had had no formal education, and Rezaei as a teenager from the border region with Pakistan where her ethnic group, the Hazara people, are persecuted. Abou Kerech fled Syria’s civil war, arriving in Oxford in 2016.

“I use poetry to explain how I see the world around me. I sometimes find England funny – and sometimes it’s difficult to fit in. Poetry helps me” said Timileyin Amusan, who came to the UK from Nigeria in 2016.

“It’s been great to see my poetry put to music; it makes you see your own writing in a different way.”

Displaced Voices was founded by Ponchione and Young to bring together refugees and asylum seekers with professional musicians, school and university students, community members, and researchers, in order to raise awareness of and support for refugee issues in Oxfordshire.

“At the heart of this project is a rich collaboration with creative, vibrant young people from extraordinary backgrounds” said Ponchione.

“The Orchestra of St John’s is fundamentally committed to using the resources of orchestral music-making to champion and represent the voices of marginalised people and issues, and to connect with the local community.

“Together, we have found meaningful ways to lift the children’s voices through the combination of music and poetry. This pairing of words and music is powerful – it has been life changing for me to experience the worlds of these students through their poetry and music and to see them captivate audiences with their work.”

The concert will be preceded by a panel discussion, at 5:30pm, chaired by Principal Jan Royall. To attend, please contact principals.events@some.ox.ac.uk. Tickets for the concert are now sold out.

Here is the text of Ftoun Abou Kerech’s ‘Doves of Damascus’, which has been set to music by Toby Young. The setting will be premiered at the concert.

Doves of Damascus


I lost my country and everything I had before.

and now

I cannot remember for sure


the soft of the snow in my country,

I cannot remember

the feel of the damp air in summer.


Sometimes I think I remember

the smell of Jasmine

as I walked down the street.


And sometimes autumn

with its orange and scarlet leaves

flying in the high Damascus sky.


And I am sure I remember

my grandmother’s roof-garden,

its vines, its sweet red grapes,


the mint she grew in crates for tea.

I remember the birds, the doves

of Damascus. I remember


how they scattered.

I remember

Trying to catch them.


© Ftoun Abou Kerech 2018

Published in England: Poems from a School (Picador, 2018).

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