“I think that if you have a hobby, you should take care of it,” says 15-year-old Hakam Khaled, a polite and confident young man from Yarmouk refugee camp, Syria. Hakam’s hobby is playing the zither, and early this year, it earned him 1st place at the International Festival for Child Music, held in Russia.
Hakam’s musical career began six years ago when he was one of the first students to enroll in the Nimreen Children’s Music Center in Yarmouk. Established by UNRWA and the Dutch charity Music in Me, the Nimreen Children’s Music Center provides UNRWA school students with professional training in classical Arabic instruments, by tutors from the Syrian High Institute for Music and the Arab Music Institute.
Now, as a student at the elite Solhi al-Wadi Institute for Music in Damascus, Hakam has become something of a cultural ambassador, traveling the world along with his classmates to bring classical Arabic music to an international audience. In addition to the festival in Russia, Hakam will perform in Paris this month, and in both Turkey and Qatar in August. In Syria, he has performed for the President and First Lady, and on national television.
Even as he masters the zither, Hakam remains open to other instruments and traditions. He learned how to play the organ from his mother, an UNRWA music teacher, in his spare time. Asked about his favorite composers, Hakam notes that he is equally captivated by Um Kulthum, Mohammad Abdul Wahab, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart. If he has the chance, Hakam aims to pursue his studies in music further abroad.
Hakam points out that, as a Palestine refugee growing up in Yarmouk, UNRWA has always played an important role in his life. Hakam studies at the Agency’s al-Malkiyeh school, where he is one of the most high-achieving students. His father, a Palestinian refugee from Tiberias, is physical education teacher. “I’m grateful to UNRWA,” says Hakam, not only because it “takes care of Palestinian refugees” but also because it “gave me the chance to discover my potential as a musician.”
Meanwhile, the great success of Hakam and other graduates of the Nimreen centre has led Music in Me and UNRWA to open more music schools at UNRWA camps throughout Syria, continuing to transform the lives of Palestine refugees through music.