Kurdish singer finds ’emotional family’ in London refugee choir

A Kurdish folk singer forced to flee his home as a teenager says he has found his “emotional family” 40 years later in a London choir featuring fellow refugees.

The Citizens of the World Choir, based in Greenwich in the south-east of the capital, has 50 members from 30 different nationalities.

Among them is performer Nawroz Oramari, who was forced to escape Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1970s after being accused of performing songs that were critical of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Mr Oramari was arrested with his father and forced to sign a pledge that he would never sing again or face the death penalty.

Faced with that threat and the continued persecution of Kurds in Iraq, he said goodbye to his family aged just 17 and fled the country.

After nine years in different countries across the Middle East – including a spell in Turkey that saw him imprisoned and tortured for his involvement in the Kurdish resistance – he finally made his way to the UK, which he reached by using a fake passport before seeking asylum.

The 59-year-old is now a British citizen who enjoys singing in his native language once again alongside his fellow choir members.

“I remember my mother used to sing us lullabies so the choir is like my mother,” he told the PA news agency.

When the challenge of lockdown presented itself, the group – a third of whom are key workers – adapted by recording themselves singing over Zoom and WhatsApp.

These recordings formed the basis of their new EP, Symphony Of Voices, which is released on Bandcamp on June 18 as part of Refugee Week.

Composer Tom Donald founded the group in early 2017 with Lib Dem peer Lord Roger Roberts of Llandudno and musical director Becky Dell, as a response to the UK’s hostile environment policy and the demolition and closure of the Calais Jungle camp.

Mr Donald said the choir’s message had previously been “break down barriers”, but the past year’s events had changed it to making “the impossible possible”.

He said: “We were all running on empty but in combination with each other, there was enough of a fire to make this work evolve.”

While Mr Donald and most members of the choir live in Greenwich, one member, Bumi Thomas, was in Lagos, Nigeria when the recording was being created.

Bumi Thomas, Citizens of the World singer
Bumi Thomas (Citizens of the World/PA)

Ms Thomas was born in Glasgow but had been threatened with deportation by the Home Office under the British Nationality Act, which removed her automatic citizenship.

Despite lockdown restrictions and being more than 4,000 miles away, the group’s new recording method allowed her to be featured as a lead vocalist.

She said: “This EP is a great testament to the resilient beauty of our bond as a choir and I am so proud to be a part of this journey”.

Since most of the refugee members of the choir have had to leave their families, the choir acts as a second family to a lot of them and is a place where they feel “listened to”.

“Everyone needs a family and sometimes an emotional family is more important than an actual family,” said Mr Oramari.