Our home was always full of music when I was a child.
As a keen amateur musician, my father surrounded himself with composers, so this became a part of my life by extension.
So it felt only natural that I’d learn the piano. I still have this love for the keys today – in fact, I use it as a form of therapy in helping others process the trauma of leaving their home countries.
Unfortunately, that’s something I’ve personally dealt with during my youth too.
I was born in a small town called Gorazde in the eastern part of Bosnia – close to the Serbian border. My childhood with my mother, father, and brother was a very happy one. I loved being surrounded by creativity.
One of my dad’s closest friends, Avdo Smailovic, was a famous composer, and his daughter was my piano teacher. She taught me when I was 14 for four years at the music school in Sarajevo.
Unfortunately, I never got to finish my studies there because in my final year – in April 1992 when I was 24 – war broke out in Bosnia. That’s when my life changed forever.
The conflict began when the government of Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia to create its own nation. This was opposed by some political parties of Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians) who launched repeated attacks, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people across three years.
There had been offensives leading up to the war and people were nervous. This tension built up and on the eve of the war breaking out, I felt that I had no choice but to flee for my life.
Unfortunately, my brother and parents had to stay in my hometown because they did not have valid passports. They encouraged me to go through.
Leaving them behind was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and to make matters worse, there was very little means for communication back then so we couldn’t regularly check on each other.
After I packed up my life into a suitcase, I made my way to Belgrade in Serbia via train from Montenegro, which was extremely busy.
People were scared and we all piled into the carriages. I was relieved to have caught the train, but I was very worried for my family and scared for their safety. The journey took about 10 hours.
Serbia was dangerous because it was close to the war, so I only stayed there for just over a week. I met a lot of people fleeing from Bosnia and we all wanted to get as far away as possible.
I didn’t really know where to go so I travelled to Ljubljana in Slovenia, where my friends lived. It was such a relief to finally get there and see people I knew.
By then, Slovenia was an independent nation, but it was very new so there was a lot of uncertainty and worry. There was a sense of uneasiness, and it was full of people trying to get away.
I was very lucky that, by chance, I was able to come to the UK towards the end of 1992. It was through a convoy that was coordinated by a church, which brought a few coaches of Bosnian refugees from Slovenia to England.
I was so relieved to be escaping to the UK, even though I had never visited before. I just knew that it was full of music – The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie. And, on the classical side of things, Edward Elgar, whose cello concerto became one of my favourite pieces of music.
In October 1992 – still aged only 24 – I arrived in the north of England in Darlington. Volunteers from all over the country helped me form a new life for myself.
They did all the practicalities, including helping me to find accommodation and even assisting me to finish my studies. I was very touched by their care and support.
It was such a culture shock for me but, at the same time, I was so relieved to have found safety.
From day one, I just kept thinking about my family though. I feared for them, especially as – about a year into the war – my mum was wounded by a shell outside the house. I only found this out weeks later when I managed to make contact with them through a radio operator.
For comfort, I turned to music, which helped in some way to alleviate the worry.
After completing my studies in 1994, I was lucky to secure a job with a Bosnian Association in Birmingham as a volunteer coordinator.
It was during that time that I decided to apply for a Music Therapy Course at the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre in London to combine my musical skills and experience of working with people who were most in need of both psychological and emotional support.
From there, I got a job as a music therapist at the charity Freedom from Torture. This was 15 years ago – and I’m still there today. It was a special moment for me, as it felt like everything was coming full circle.
This was the reason I wanted to become a music therapist – to work with people who had a refugee background like myself. I hoped to help heal others of their trauma by using the medium of music.
Sometimes people find it hard to talk about their torture and all the difficulties they have experienced, so music helps them to communicate. They free themselves through it.
One of my clients said that, to him, making music was like ‘putting a dressing on an open wound’. Another said that playing the music in the session made him forget about all his problems and transported him to a safe place, adding: ‘I want it to be like this all the time.’
One particular Iranian client was subject to torture and was punished for playing the guitar. So he would come to therapy and play every instrument but stay away from the guitar, which was a source of trauma for him.
We built up trust and eventually he began to play it again. This helped him process his traumatic experiences and overcome depression, telling me he felt lighter and happier. He’s now enrolled onto a music course at college and would like a career in music.
Our group therapy sessions can help build confidence and allow people to form friendships too.
Witnessing first-hand exactly how music therapy helps people of all ages and nationalities to deal with their traumatic past experiences is so rewarding for me.
I have used music to alleviate my own stress and worries that I had during the war in Bosnia. Playing the piano helped me to process my emotions and the trauma at that time.
I have been here for over 30 years now, but I make sure I go back to my hometown to visit my family once or twice a year. I am thankful that they are safe and well and do not have to worry.
Now, I spend my time doing what I love, working and teaching the piano. I am content.
Freedom from Torture is back with The Great Street Feast at BAFA Piccadilly this June to coincide with Refugee Week. The event will see the coming together of leading chefs cooking alongside refugees, with talks including Joanna Lumley in conversation with John McCarthy, followed by comedian and author Alexei Sayle.
Tickets are available here. Find out more about creative projects and events from Freedom from Torture via their website here.
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