Hip hop and children’s voices: In Paris, migrant artists craft new future

Thousands of asylum seekers use France as a transit point in the hope of reaching Britain

Paris: In a bright white room in a building north of Paris, Syrian musician Karam Al Zouhir impatiently clicks a mouse as he presses his headphones against his ears.

The 30-year-old artist, who left his country shortly after civil war broke out in 2011, is composing a musical show for children based on recordings of refugee children telling their stories, with support from French writer Claire Audhuy.

“In many ways kids are more perceptive and adaptable than adults,” said Al Zouhir, one of about 200 musicians, painters and sculptors from conflict-affected countries working alongside each other in the workshop in northern Paris.

“There’s so much we can learn from the way they experience a crisis,” he said, totally engrossed in overlaying sounds of clinging forks and crushed cans on quotes from children.

Giving artists from countries such as Syria, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of Congo the chance to continue their work and rebuild their lives was the reason that former theatre managers Ariel Cypel and Judith Depaule set up the Agency for Artists in Exile earlier this year.

With funding from the Paris authorities and a 1,000-square-metre space the size of four tennis courts provided by French charity Emmaus Solidarite, artists need only pay a token €1 (Dh4.40) a year to work there, explained Cypel.

“Most of the people working here live in extremely precarious conditions,” he said. “So we try to take off some pressure and provide members with a bit of stability, if only in their work life.” Artists come at all hours and can stay for as long as they want, Cypel added.

“When you’ve suffered torture, rape or forced exile, getting into work early is the last thing on your mind.”


According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), about 400,000 refugees claimed asylum in Europe in 2017, fleeing the war in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as conflicts and poverty in Africa and Asia.

While France has been much less affected by Europe’s refugee crisis than neighbouring Germany, thousands of asylum seekers use it as a transit point in the hope of reaching Britain.

Cypel said artists were particularly at risk of persecution from repressive regimes and often forced into exile, where their talent and knowledge too often go unnoticed.

The agency’s art ranges from hip-hop workshops to help minors feel more comfortable with their body, to doll collections by Afghan performance artist Kubra Khademi, whose work focuses on “those girls who have no choice but to be born women”.

While the initiative is primarily about art, it also aims to facilitate members’ integration into society by introducing them to art professionals, helping them learn French, and even offering legal and psychological support.

“For me, success would actually be our artists leaving us and making it on their own,” said Cypel, a hesitant smile spreading across his face.

For Al Zouhir, there is “absolutely no chance of going back to Syria, even if it means never seeing my parents again”.

“If however I can make something beautiful out of something so ugly, and help preserve my country’s culture, then I hope they can be proud of me,” he said.

Cypel knows the workspace may not last forever.

“The [real estate] developers plan to destroy the building at some point and rebuild it entirely,” he said, pointing to a brand new apartment block outside the window.

“But they promised they’d help us find another location,” he added. “And anyway, being always on the move is part of our DNA as artists.”

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