Perwin and Norshean Salih

Resilient melodies: Kurdish refugee sisters singing through displacement and loss

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When the Syrian Kurdish sisters, Perwin and Norshean Salih, sing about loss, it comes from the heart. Now in their early 20s, they have been driven twice from their family home in the northern Syrian town of Kobane—first by the Islamic State group and again by the threat of Turkish bombs. 

They have now found a safe haven in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. Here, they make a living by performing the often melancholy music of their people at a local restaurant. 

“Kurdish folk songs are our favorite type of music,” said Perwin Salih, 20, who plays the santoor, tambourine, and Armenian flute. “They narrate the plight of the Kurds, the wars, the tragedy of displacement, and the killings.”

The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group numbering between 25 million and 35 million, are spread mainly across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They do not have a state of their own. They have long complained of oppression but have endured particular horrors during Syria’s 12-year civil war, especially the onslaught of IS.

Perwin and Norshean Salih perform in Erbil

When jihadists attacked Kobane in late 2014, turning the town into a symbol of Kurdish resistance through heavy fighting, the sisters fled across the border to Turkey. After several unhappy months in Istanbul, they moved to the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey to continue their music studies. 

In 2019, they returned home after Syrian Kurdish-led forces, with US backing, drove IS out of their last territorial stronghold. However, Turkey has continued to target parts of northern Syria, ostensibly to combat Kurdish militants. Once, the sisters say, mortar shells hit their family home, thankfully without exploding.

‘IS still haunts my dreams’

Late last year, when Turkey launched significant air and artillery strikes, the Salih sisters fled again—this time to Iraq. They and two more siblings now rent a modest two-room house in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region.

The two women grew up in a household of music lovers. Their mother sang to them before bedtime, while their father played the tambourine. However, the trauma they have endured since has left deep scars. “A vision of IS still haunts me,” said Perwin. “Men in black clothes, holding black flags, on a quest to turn life itself black.”

At a recent concert, Perwin played the flute while Norshean, 23, captivated the audience with a Kurdish folk tune about displacement. “I am a stranger,” she sang softly. “Without you, mother, my wings are broken. I am a stranger, and life abroad is like a prison.”

Norshean, a classical music aficionado, also plays the piano, guitar, and kamancheh—an ancient Persian string instrument. She dreams of making it as a violinist. But for now, she has recurring nightmares of jihadists. “IS still haunts my dreams,” she told AFP.

On their latest escape from Kobane, the sisters faced another nightmare. At the border, Syrian soldiers demanded that they play, warning that they would confiscate the instruments if they didn’t like the music. “We cried while we played, and when we were done, they smiled and said, ‘Now you can pass,'” recounted Norshean.

The sisters now primarily perform at a restaurant called Beroea, an ancient name for the once-vibrant Syrian city of Aleppo. Co-owner Riyad Othman said he was not surprised by the dangers the women have had to face. A Syrian Kurd himself, he said his people “spend their entire life fleeing, estranged and suffering.”

The wandering sisters dream of one day returning home. “I hope … the war will end, so we can be free, so we can return to our homes to play music and teach music to the children,” said Norshean. “This will be good to revive people’s souls.”