Last week, Chapter House in Durham Cathedral was alive with the sound of music, as one hundred and seventy people packed into the venue to watch the sold-out premier of Stories of Sanctuary.
The two-hour performance marks the climax of the project which was launched earlier this summer with a series of storytelling workshops.
The creative output, which included photography, stories, poems and other pieces of creative writing, inspired a folk album of songs which was then used as the basis of the Durham Cathedral performance.
Folk singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher and viola player Raghad Haddad from the National Syrian Orchestra, who is herself a refugee from Syria, worked together to curate the show; bringing the new songs created over the summer together with traditional Syrian and North East-inspired music.
A participatory community storytelling project, Stories of Sanctuary was established to enable people living in the city of Durham to share their stories of seeking sanctuary in the North East of England
Durham’s history has been defined by refugee community’s search for sanctuary.
The etymology of the concept pre-dates the Viking age, as a legal principal put in place to offer refuge for those fleeing the consequences of conflict.
The search for safety also brought the city its first-ever dwellers, a community of monks, carrying an Irish saint – Saint Cuthbert – who became exiled from their home on the Island of Lindisfarne in the 9th century.
Durham Cathedral pays testament to this proud heritage in the form of the Sanctuary Knocker which, until the year 1624, gave the guilty and wrongly accused protection from the law for 37 days.
Since 2016, Durham has been a ‘City of Sanctuary’ for all those who have fled war and persecution and is home to several Syrian families who have escaped the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Part of a wider movement of cities, towns and counties creating a culture of welcome for all who have fled war – Durham City of Sanctuary was found to bring communities together and preserve Durham’s commitment to providing protection for the persecuted.
By weaving stories from the past together with modern day narratives of dislocation, Stories of Sanctuary aims to provide a fresh perspective on what it means to be living as a refugee in the North East of England today.
And the initiative isn’t the only project that is raising for roof for Syria. Singing for Syria, a nationwide fundraising initiative, also aims to use music to promote understanding of the challenges facing the Syrian people and diaspora.
Singing for Syria is encouraging individuals, bands, choirs, schools and churches across the UK to hold local singing event as part of the wider campaign, with the ultimate objective of raising money to help the most vulnerable people affected by the crisis.
So far, supporters across London, the South West and East of England have committed to holding carol services, and there are plans for a flagship service at St Margaret’s in Westminster.
Conflict, displacement and sanctuary are often discussed as pressing contemporary issues, so it’s easy to forget that they are also abiding historical themes. That’s why it’s great to see so many communities engaging with the meaning of these topics and exploring their many local permutations.
The empathy and commitment of the volunteers involved in delivering these projects should inspire us to unity and positive action. Through their activism, they demonstrate the profound impact of the search for sanctuary, which continues to inflect the identity of Britain and its many regions.