Music in times of war: Female entrepreneur founds music school and helps children forget about the war in Syria

08 March 2018
Manar performing with the Lighthouse Choir at the Damascus Opera House. © 2018 UNRWA Photo provided by Manar Al Sha’ar

International Women’s Day feature, 8 March 2018

Manar al-Sha’ar knows how to turn a tough situation into an opportunity.  After being swindled while trying to flee the war in Syria, she decided to build a future within the country. "I refused to give up and decided to establish my business again," she says. That resolve paid off. Her music school, Al Manara, is a thriving success, and the children’s choir she has founded has won accolades not just within Syria, but across the Arab world.

After completing her musical studies at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, she returned to her home town of Sweida. In 2010, she started a music school from her living room, teaching instruments she owned like traditional oud, violin and the electronic keyboard.

Business was going well, but the war started to engulf the country. Manar and her husband decided to try to leave the country. However, things did not go as planned. They were blackmailed, and lost a large sum of money. And so Manar decided to double down on their future in the country.

In 2014, she approached UNRWA for a micro-loan to buy a piano. She now has 70 students, who learn everything from reading music and singing to how to play the traditional oud or guitar.

Manar also started a children’s choir, the Lighthouse Choir, as a way to give children an escape from the violence around them. Every Monday, dozens of children and youngsters gather around to practice a musical repertoire that ranges from Arab classics to American pop.  “The group is now the most famous choir in the southern province,” she says proudly. They have performed on local television and sung on stage at the Opera house in Damascus, the country’s most prestigious musical venue. In the future, she dreams of taking them to perform on an international stage.

Manar is not resting on her laurels. She keeps expanding and updating her business. Most recently, she received a loan of 250.000 SYP (US$ 1160) to continue to grow. She bought a new oud and sound-proofed and painted the walls of her music school.

The loan is part of a microfinance scheme run with the generous support of the European Union. Manar is just one of more than 3500 recipients of micro-loans, thanks to a US$ 1 million grant from the EU. Over 35 per cent of the loans issued in Syria have gone to female entrepreneurs.

Starting her business has allowed Manar to support her family. It has also given hope to a new generation of children through music. “I am proud of this generation that challenges the war and instead chooses to fight against ignorance and backwardness,” she says. In their turn, the children have taught her to persevere, despite the odds. “They are the greatest lesson and have provided me with the greatest wisdom of my life.”

UNRWA launched the #DignityIsPriceless campaign in Gaza on 22 January 2018. © 2018 UNRWA Photo Rushdi Al Saraj
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