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Finding healing through music: Alain’s story

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Alain, 15, remembers the crashing sound that shook the walls of his home when the devastating explosion rocked the city of Beirut in August 2020. As his family scrambled to safety, surrounded by shouts of pain, disbelief and despair, he felt disconnected from his body.

Alain and his family lived in in a neighbourhood that was devastated by the blast. They escaped relatively unharmed physically but, for the next few months, Alain was haunted by the fear the catastrophe would recur. Whenever he tried to sleep, the sound of the explosion echoed through his mind, and he could feel the ball of anxiety in his stomach getting tighter.

Alain and others perform a song they wrote, urging leaders in Lebanon to take action and holding those responsible for the Beirut explosion accountable.

The more Alain withdrew, the more his mother worried. She heard about Music for Social Change, a program Right To Play was running before the blast then adapted to provide psychosocial support to children affected by the explosion, and she encouraged him to attend the sessions. She knew he had an interest in learning the darbukkah, a small goblet-shaped drum. She hoped attending the program might give Alain something to focus on and help him work through some of his trauma.


Working through fear to find his voice

In Music for Social Change, coaches lead children through experiential music activities designed to help them heal from trauma and express their feelings through song. At first, Alain kept to himself and rarely spoke. He was interested in what was happening, but he would sometimes lose his temper and become aggressive with his peers. Elias, one of the program coaches, was concerned about Alain’s behaviour. He knew that something was underlying Alain’s outbursts that he needed to better understand.

“When Alain attended the sessions, I had a feeling that he did not understand what I was saying. Then he would suddenly turn aggressive with me or with the other youth in the program.”

Elias started to spend more time working with Alain, giving him pointers on his darbukkah technique, and sharing playful drills he could use to practice his skills. He also started to uncover the source of Alain’s anger and frustration. In time, he realized that Alain struggled to understand the activity instructions in Arabic, his second language, and found it difficult to ask for help with translations because it made him feel embarrassed and helpless. Immediately, Elias and the other coaches began delivering instructions more slowly, and checking in with him before moving on.

“When I participate in the activities, I feel happy and energetic. They make me feel hopeful.” – Alain, 15

With the additional support of a friend who helped translate instructions, Alain’s behaviour began to shift. He started participating more, working with his friends as a team, and asking questions if there was something he didn't understand. He even started to dig in to technical music questions as he learned to play the darbukkah.

“I love that we make music and that I learn music technically. When I participate in the activities, I feel happy and energetic. They make me feel hopeful.”


Learning through music: creating spaces where children can thrive

In Lebanon, learning music can be an expensive luxury. The Music for Social Change program aims to make it accessible to any child, especially those from vulnerable backgrounds.

Like Alain, many children who attend the program have fled their home country and are living as refugees or are stateless, without access to government-issued identification. Others have dropped out of school and are working to help provide for their families. Still others are living on the street with little access to support. The program’s weekly sessions, hosted at a local community centre, provide more than 500 youth with a safe place to access psychosocial support and develop important life skills through music activities.

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Alain and his friends play a game designed to help them practice rhythm and listening, each taking turns creating the beat with their shakers while the other youth match it.

In program sessions, Right To Play-trained facilitators lead youth through games specially designed to teach them technical music skills like beat, rhythm, harmony, and melody, and skills like teamwork, problem-solving, and communication.

Youth progress through a series of lessons where they build musical and life skills appropriate for their age. Once they’ve completed this curriculum, the youth become the leaders. They work in groups to identify a social issue or child protection issue that they want to address. Together, they write, compose and perform songs about issues like child marriage, racism, access to education, waste, pollution, gender equality, lack of safe spaces or returning to their homelands. The program creates the space and opportunity for Alain to express themselves and see how they can be changemakers in their communities.

“I am proud of being able to participate, speak my mind, and play music with my friends.” – Alain, 15

Helping others find their voice

As Alain progressed through the skill-building lessons, his confidence grew. He began to take on more responsibility in the program, volunteering to organize upcoming sessions. He also led his peers in conversations about which issues they wanted to address through their music. Together, they decided to focus on justice. The song they wrote, which you can watch them perform above, calls for an investigation into the Beirut explosion, urging leaders to find the truth behind what caused it and to hold those responsible accountable.

His mother is thrilled to see confidence that now shines in her son’s eyes. “After the explosion, Alain became very isolated. But since he started to attend these sessions, his behaviour has changed. He is listening more attentively and expressing himself positively.”

Alain can feel it too. He feels strong, connected, and capable of leadership. The sessions provided him with the much-needed space to vent, heal from trauma, and think of the future with hope. “I am proud of being able to participate, speak my mind, and play music with my friends.”

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