‘Integration happens both ways’: Arabic choir bringing migrants and locals together

Migration in Northern Ireland: Singing unites women of different faiths and nationalities in Belfast

Every Saturday, the sound of women singing songs in Arabic rings out in the Crescent Arts Centre in south Belfast. The Yallaa choir – Yallaa meaning “let’s go” in Arabic – is the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland. Since being started by Tunisian native Rym Akhonzada earlier this year, it has brought asylum seekers and refugees from Syria and Sudan together with locals and other migrants.

Hawa Hassan, an asylum seeker from Sudan, is one of the choir’s newest members. She has been living in Belfast for three months and, like many seeking asylum, is being housed in a hotel.

“I’m safe here,” she told investigative news website The Detail, which has been tracking demographic trends in Northern Ireland. “I live with people from other countries. We are sharing the experience.”

Hassan is a novice singer but is keen to learn more and meet new people. “The life here is nice, the area is calm, quiet, everything is organised.”


Choir leader Anne McCambridge, from Carnlough, Co Antrim said some asylum seekers were initially reluctant to attend because practice clashed with lunchtime at their hotels. Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, and receive hotel meals at set times.

“So if they had come to rehearsal, they wouldn’t have got anything to eat . . . we brought food here as part of the rehearsal,” McCambridge said.

The choir includes women from Muslim and Christian faiths.

On December 22nd, singers will host a Christmas concert at 2 Royal Avenue, an arts centre in Belfast, featuring popular English and Arabic songs including Jingle Bells and the Lebanese piece Layet Eid, which share the same tune.

Rise in Arabic speakers

Two decades ago, Arabic was rarely heard in Northern Ireland. Figures from last year’s census, however, show that 3,627 people now primarily speak Arabic, making it the North’s fifth most common language.

Kawtar Zamani moved from Morocco to Northern Ireland in 2018 to be near her husband’s family. She jumped at the chance to join the choir “to meet new people, also to socialise, also to enjoy our Arabic culture, to hear Arabic, to speak Arabic”.

“Now I can see that Belfast is changing and that there is a lot of diversity,” she said.

Ragdah Emad, from Sudan, has been living in Belfast for two months. Before she got married, she was a professional musician. “I was a singer in Sudan, with a band. [We played] Sudanese or sometimes Arabic music,” she said.

Given some of the singers are not Arab speakers, the choir uses a phonetic version of the Arabic script so everyone can pronounce the words.

Hazel Workman, a native English speaker, said a holiday to Morocco several years ago inspired her to learn Arabic.

“It [Morocco] kind of blew my mind. It was so familiar and so strange at the same time,” she said, adding that she later started learning Arabic online before taking in-person classes.

“It would take 70 lifetimes for me to be fluent,” she said, but being in the choir offers “a good way to improve”.

Maria Allsopp, originally from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, has been in Belfast for four months and said the culture shock has “taken some getting used to”.

Allsopp has sung in church and classical choirs since she was a teenager. “I like to sing, I sing to relax, I sing when I’m nervous, sometimes I prefer to sing rather than pray . . . It makes me feel good, it makes me feel alive. I sing through my troubles.”

‘There was no support’

Rym Akhonzada is the driving force behind the choir. She moved to Northern Ireland from Tunisia in 2001 after her husband got a job at Queen’s University Belfast

“People thought we were crazy going to Northern Ireland at that time, just out of the Troubles,” she said. “My dad, God love him, was like ‘Do you know that people shoot each other in the street in Belfast?’”

Following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, hundreds of refugees moved to Northern Ireland under a UK government resettlement scheme. According to the 2021 census, there were 1,800 Syrians in the North, compared with 31 in 2011.

In 2016, Akhonzada launched a social enterprise – Yallaa – to help Syrian refugees in Lisburn as “there was no support, there was no mechanism supporting them”. Yallaa soon expanded to take in all of Northern Ireland.

The enterprise focuses on promoting Arabic arts, heritage and culture, and empowering people of Arab origin including refugees and asylum seekers. People can take part in cookery classes, homework clubs, concerts and film-making clubs.

The enterprise also runs a cafe in a former Tesco outlet on Belfast’s Royal Avenue, with refugees among the staff.

“This is how we promote Arab culture,” she said. “We take a soft approach, we don’t go to people and give a lecture. We do it in a subtle way, a soft way.

“We have beautiful music, we have beautiful arts, we have beautiful culture, but that isn’t represented. People in Northern Ireland don’t know much about it, and they always associate Arabs with negative things that they see in the media. And I really wanted to change all of that.

“I always think, when you talk about integration, integration happens both ways. The host community has to do their best, and the migrant or newcomer community also has to do their part as well.”