In 2007 Sheffield became the UK’s first City of Sanctuary – a place that welcomes asylum-seekers and refugees, that offers a hand to people in need of safety. Continuing in this spirit of welcoming, unity and belonging, the One World Choir launched in 2018 – a group of refugees and asylum seekers from several countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as other local people, who come together to sing songs of love, solidarity and belonging.
When the Sanctuary information centre and social space opened on Chapel Walk in 2018, it was only natural that One World Choir performed at their launch event. Since then, they’ve taken to the stage at events including Migration Matters Festival, Sheffield Carnival, and SoAfrica.
We spoke to Pari, an Iranian woman and one of the 40 members of this uplifting community, ahead of the choir’s performance at the Tramlines Fringe.
Tell us about One World Choir and how you got involved.
When I moved to Sheffield last year I didn’t know anybody but I went to a rehearsal and found that I felt very comfortable, even though I didn’t sing in Iran. It’s a positive atmosphere, there’s lots of solidarity and the group is very diverse. We have someone who is 18, others who are 30, 40, 50, someone who is disabled, and another who brings their children along. Because we are very different from one another and we're from different countries, we have lots to talk about. Nowadays, the choir is not just singing – they’re my friends.
What themes does the choir sing about?
We have some Arabic songs, some Swahili and other African languages – they’re all songs that are popular in their country. It can be a struggle to become familiar with songs in languages we don’t understand! But we translate for each other so that we can sing with feeling and convey the right message to the audience. Often they’re for solidarity, about finding something in common with other people, or they’re about love and freedom. One of the songs says “we have more in common than that which divides us.” I think that when you look from the outside a lot of the time people only think of asylum seekers and refugees in a financial way – "oh, they didn’t have money so they came here and now we have to pay for everything for them." But every one of us has a different story and, when you listen to people, you find that everybody had their own problems and they’re here because they wanted a better life. The choir is about a positive message and being hopeful.
What do you like about Sheffield?
It’s supportive here, people are friendly and talk to you easily, and I feel at home because there are lots of international people. I’m a volunteer for Assist and South Yorkshire Refugee Law and Justice, and an interpreter at Sanctuary – they all care a lot about people, and the Learn for Life education centre is also very supportive. I love the Botanical Gardens, Forge Dam, the University of Sheffield is beautiful. Marmaris on London Road – it’s a Turkish restaurant but it reminds me of Iran. Especially the bread; it’s hot and thick and every time they put it on our table it just takes me to Iran and I’m reminded of my mum. It can be painful but you can never fully separate yourself from where you’re from.
What would you change about the city?
I’d like more support for homeless people in the city centre. I wish I could do something to help. For myself, I would like more opportunities here, to do more than I am and to be more useful. I’ve been a lawyer in Iran and have bachelor and masters degrees, but sometimes I feel discouraged when it seems that you have to be British or European to be a professional here.