TACOMA, Washington — Children comprise over half of the world’s 70.8 million refugees, individuals who have lost their homes and livelihoods searching for safety. In recent years, the refugee crisis has been acerbated by violence, civil wars, ethnic or religious persecution and natural disasters. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) notes that children who survive such catastrophes and end up in refugee camps can “find ways to cope” by “learning, playing and exploring their skills.” In 1999, Liz Shropshire set out on a one-woman journey to Kosovo, the site of violent ethnic cleansing that left one million refugees, to do just that by teaching children peace through music. Her benevolent summer vacation project turned into a full-fledged non-profit music program, called the Shropshire Music Foundation (SMF). Today, SMF operates in five countries and has helped more than 17,000 children cope with trauma and prepare for successful adult lives.
The Shropshire Music Foundation: Teaching Music for Hope
The Shropshire Music Foundation offers simple music courses for free, teaching the pennywhistle, harmonica, ukulele, drum, guitar or voice to refugee children. These children learn to read music and play simple songs with their instruments, which are donated and given as gifts to any child who enrolls and commits to the program. As older children complete the course, they are able to enroll as Youth Teaching Volunteers to teach music courses to younger children.
The program aims to connect children from different backgrounds in a positive learning environment, ultimately teaching tolerance, life skills and hope for the future.
In an exclusive interview with SMF’s Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors and Board Member Monica Clay, she shared Shropshire’s account of entering a new war-torn region. “When we arrive in a new area, we recognize the trauma in the kids’ eyes,” recalled Shropshire. And when Shropshire arrived at the refugee camps to start her music program, she discovered that war-borne trauma caused many children to struggle with anger management and attention maintenance.
She saw younger children “act out executions and other atrocities in their playtime” while the older children were “racked with boredom without a lot of hope for the future.” In response, SMF orchestrated its program to “bring in structure, goals to work toward, opportunities to perform” and interaction with diverse peers in a way that taught “tolerance, patience, self-control, self-esteem, leadership and resistance to extremism.”
In 2014, The American Psychological Association published a study by the University of North Texas that discovered a strong correlation between SMF participation and trauma reduction. The study discovered that the children who participated for at least one year exhibited less “emotional, psychological and cognitive disruption, including reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder” than their peers.
Clay noted that “although SMF does not present itself as medical therapy, the foundation’s program has proven effective in utilizing music to redress psychological trauma, advance emotional health and improve the quality of life for war-affected children and adolescents.” Dealing with trauma through music and social interaction provided by SMF allows these children to develop coping skills that will help them lead productive lives in the aftermath of their childhood tragedies.
Teaching Job Skills and Promoting Education
Shropshire’s free music education is not the only thing preparing these stranded children for adulthood. To keep her music program running in her absence, Shropshire decided to train the older youth in the refugee camps to run the younger children’s program. These teenagers are given the reigns of the program with the title “Youth Teaching Volunteers,” allowing Shropshire to travel between her refugee camp programs or briefly return to the United States.
The training for these youth is thorough and demanding, often taking up to 40 hours in total. On top of learning essential music skills to teach the course, the youth learn time management, how to make lesson plans and lead classroom activities. Additionally, the youth volunteers are also given the opportunity to learn and teach English, another skill that prepares them for an international job market. Clay added that the Youth Teaching Volunteers not only learn marketable skills but also develop “the confidence to use them [. . .] Their training in racial, ethnic and religious tolerance opens their world to new opportunities.”
SMF also helps refugee children and youth find renewed structure in a classroom setting, with teachers, class participation and familiar infrastructure. Perhaps this setting, combined with positive social interaction, inspires SMF’s astounding education success rates among its participants. The statistics for Kosovo participants show that 100% of Youth Volunteers completed their primary and secondary education compared to 40% completion among their peers. Additionally, 95% of Kosovo youth volunteers attended college, compared to 33% of their peers.
As lacking education is one of the leading causes of intergenerational poverty worldwide, this statistic equips SMF graduates to succeed, escape poverty and beat the odds as they venture into international job markets.
Fitore Shllaku’s Success Story
Fitore Shllaku is one such SMF youth volunteer graduate. She and her Albanian family barely escaped the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign. Shllaku father was beaten and tortured, her aunt was tortured and killed. After hiding in various family members’ homes, Shllaku family made its way to a Kosovo refugee camp, where Shllaku became involved in SMF. She quickly became one of the program’s first youth volunteers and reported that she rediscovered hope for her future in the process.
Shllaku later applied and graduated from Penn State University as an architect. She now works in Pennsylvania at a large architecture firm. Clay, who knows Shllaku personally through her volunteer work with SMF, said “Fitore credits her self esteem, her leadership skills, the opportunities to learn English, the opportunities she had to come to the United States to study—all her success—to the Shropshire Music Foundation.”
Many of Shllaku’s peers have also found peace and meaning through SMF. The Shropshire Music Foundation continues to operate in Kosovo, Uganda, Northern Ireland, Greece, Bangladesh and with refugees in Salt Lake City, Utah, to help children and youth heal from trauma and develop lifelong skills. As children learn tolerance and rediscover the joy in music, and as youth develop leadership skills and work experience, Shropshire Music Foundation raises thousands of refugee children out of poverty, one day at a time.
– Elizabeth Broderick