Music for Refugees

On Saturday, 22 April 2023, in the mediaeval University Church of St Mary’s in Oxford, an important new initiative was launched that I find exceptionally inspiring.

A conductor named Josh Asokan — who is also a fully qualified Refugee Lawyer — launched the Odyssey Ensemble. As Josh himself told me when I met with him, “Odyssey Ensemble is sort of modelled on the West East Divan Orchestra that was created by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. My thinking was: if you can address the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East through the co-operative work of young musicians from both sides of the divide, why not use music and the creative arts to advocate for the dignity and importance of refugees who come to the UK. Everyone involved in our project starts from the fundamental conviction that all human beings are endowed with dignity, regardless of where they are from. In the UK, where immigration is often a divisive and polarising issue, music and drama and poetry working together can foster empathy, cross boundaries and connect people from diverse backgrounds, most of whom will have important contributions to make to our society and economy.”

Odyssey Ensemble’s aims are to engage, inspire, and influence. The theme of the first programme was The Lost Birds and included two world premieres – Wounded Wings composed by Sarah Jenkins to set a poem by Mezia Qahramany and The Lost Birds, by Christopher Tin. The latter linked to the plight of refugees a memorial for extinct birds lost through the destruction of natural habitats. Of her poem for the other premiere Merzia Qahramany wrote: “I often imagine myself in the position of a bird that has to migrate for whatever reason. I had a similar experience to migrant birds as I have been displaced before and England became my home. Every time I wrote a new verse it was somehow related to my own experience when I was younger and still in Afghanistan.”

This initiative is not just about the performances. It is about telling actual individual stories. Josh works as a refugee lawyer with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Oxford and over the last few years he has grown to understand the immigration system a little more – although he does not believe anyone can fully understand how the system works. He finds himself in the unique position of being both a fully trained musician and a refugee lawyer. He hopes Odyssey Ensemble will take individual and important stories around the country. The newspapers and news broadcasters are always quoting statistics. For him, at each event, there needs to be enacted or narrated stories that are, in every case, emblematic and promote real understanding just as, for instance, did the Diary of Anne Frank.

Josh’s project is still in its early stages. “Our orchestra is setting up as a charity and securing funding. We plan to perform in areas of the UK which are largely opposed to inward refugee migration but which at the same time consume orchestral music and drama heavily. We hope to reach policy makers in Westminster who can make a tangible difference in the lives of asylum seekers in the UK. Refugees are not nameless problems to be gotten rid of but precious lives with dignity, intelligence and talent that will enrich and benefit our nation.”

As part of his role in his law firm, Josh Asokan has a relationship with the Oxford University Law Faculty where he trains a few law students every year in Immigration Law. He makes time to speak in various settings and is happy to give informative presentations on refugee issues in the UK. He has also partnered with the International Organization for Migration UN to organise awareness raising initiatives on refugee issues.

If you are interested in being involved with helping or financially supporting this project in any way at all, please contact Josh via email: