Girls from the persecuted Yazidi community in Northern Iraq, who formed a choir to help keep their folk traditions alive, were hosted by Cumberland Lodge during their visit to the UK last week. During their stay, they gave a special performance of their traditional music, to staff and guests.

They performed in the Amy Buller Library on Wednesday 5 February, along with Qawal musicians, presenting both religious music and traditional folk songs from their home villages.

Their concert at Cumberland Lodge was introduced by Dr Mahmoud Othman, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Governing Council, who has been accompanying their London tour. Dr Othman is the former head of the Kurdistan Socialist Party and was Minister of State for Civil Society in the Interim Iraqi Governing Council, following the United States invasion in 2003. He told the story of the Yazidi people, and explained the roots of their distinctive music.

The choir also performed at Westminster Abbey, Clarence House, the Houses of Parliament, and in the Bodleian Library and New College Chapel, Oxford. During their visit to Oxford they handed over recordings of their traditional music for safekeeping in the Bodleian Library, as part of a project overseen by the AMAR Foundation, with funding from The British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund.

The girls all come from the Mount Sinjar region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where thousands of Yazidi people have been murdered by ISIL fighters, in what has been recognised by the United Nations as genocide. They have been personally affected by the violence and now live in a refugee camp, in exile, some as young as 15 years old.

'A privilege and an inspiration'

Edmund Newell, Chief Executive of Cumberland Lodge, is also a trustee of the AMAR Foundation, the British education and healthcare charity that supported the establishment of the Yazidi Choir and has been providing musical training and wider support for hundreds of exiled Yazidis.

He said, ‘It has been a privilege and an inspiration to host these brave young people. The charity at Cumberland Lodge was founded in the aftermath of war and genocide, in 1947. Our founding vision was to address the causes and effects of social division, through open dialogue and debate, to help prevent the terrible consequences that ensue. We provide opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds to get together and exchange views and ideas on pressing issues that affect us all.

‘Our founder, Amy Buller, started this work in Germany, during the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s, but the crisis now facing the Yazidis in Northern Iraq is a stark example of societal breakdown in the 21st century, and one that we should all learn from to avoid such a thing happening again.’

Healing and rebuilding communities

The Yazidi Choir was formed with the support of the AMAR Foundation, which is headed by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne. This project aims to help young people cope with the trauma they have suffered and to preserve their folk music, which is integral to both their religious observance and cultural identity, but has been suppressed under successive regimes.

Baroness Nicholson explained: ‘Five of the choir members who visited the UK last week were kidnapped and held as sex slaves by various members of ISIL, before escaping after months or even years of captivity. One of them, still only 15, was just 10 years old when she was captured.

‘The choir was created to help them deal with the psychological trauma they suffered at the hands of these thugs. It is one of a number of projects designed to help the mental health in general, of people living for years in the sprawling IDP [internally displaced persons] camps in northern Iraq.’

The Yazidi community is a distinct minority-ethnic group, which is closely tied to its homeland in Iraqi Kurdistan, with their own religion, and cultural roots that can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. Prior to the recent crisis involving ISIL fighters, the Yazidi people have suffered successive genocides, including under Turkish-Ottoman rule, and more recently under Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaida.