'Music can change lives... But I want to help people understand that asylum seekers are just like the rest of us'
AFTER almost three decades working as a guitar technician with rock bands around the world, Leif Bodnarchuk is now using his skills to help provide the gift of music to asylum seekers in Northern Ireland. Barry McCaffrey reports
SHINDAR Ali’s smile lights up the darkness of the recording studio as he explains that music is a universal language that can help unite the world.
Surrounded by amplifiers and instruments in a refurbished warehouse in the heart of Belfast city centre sits a circle of budding musicians from across the globe.
A mutual love of music is the bond that has brought them together.
But each of their individual journeys here has been difficult and potentially deadly in their quest to escape political, religious or economic persecution in their native homelands.
Like so many other people seeking asylum, they are not allowed to work or claim benefits and often have to live separated from society in hotel accommodation for long periods with little or nothing to stimulate their imagination and no certainty over their future.
Language difficulties and isolation often mean they spend days and weeks at a time without the sound of a friendly voice.
But their prayers were recently answered thanks to the public’s generous donation of dozens of instruments to a local music charity.
Leif Bodnarchuk has worked as a guitar technician with rock bands Ash, The Mission and Leonard Cohen for nearly 30 years.
When the Covid pandemic put a premature end to his transatlantic rock tours, Leif was determined to use his guitar-fixing talents to creating something for the greater good.
He posted his services on social media, offering to repair broken guitars to help local charities.
He had no idea the offer would strike such a chord with local music lovers.
“When I first came here from Canada as a child in the 1980s some people made fun of my accent and told me to go back to my own country,” he explained.
“I know how horrible it feels to be an outsider.
“After nearly 30 years in the music industry I want to give something back and help educate people about the plight of refugees.
“These people travel thousands of miles to get to Northern Ireland to find sanctuary and safety. Many of them are children, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
“They have literally nothing to stimulate their minds, stuck alone in hotel rooms with nothing for company but four bare walls.
“If we can provide some small sense of musical fulfilment and enjoyment by giving them guitars that I have restored then that makes my job worthwhile.
“Music can change lives I have no doubt about that. But I want to help people understand that asylum seekers are just like the rest of us.”
More than 50 guitars refurbished by Leif have already been donated to Beyond Skin, who co-ordinate the Musicians and Artists Resettlement Scheme (MARS) project.
The charity, which works to promote positive social change in Northern Ireland through the arts, also helps hundreds of musicians globally in Afghanistan, Colombia and Sri Lanka.
“We were overwhelmed by Leif’s offer,” said spokesman Darren Ferguson.
“Thanks to the generosity of the public we’ve now been able to donate dozens of Leif’s refurbished guitars. When American company Danelectro heard about the project they also offered to provide portable amplifiers so that the guys can practice properly in their hotel rooms.”
The success of the project has now led to the establishment of guitar classes involving displaced musicians from right across the world who are now seeking economic and political refuge.
Shindar Ali (25) and his family were forced to flee their native war-torn Syria in 2016.
Ill health means that Shindar, who is a student about Belfast Met, has to undergo blood transfusion every three weeks.
“I love Northern Ireland and the music that I’m learning with Beyond Skin,” he said.
“Back in Syria I loved to sing. When I sing all my problems disappear.
“Music is a universal language. It can break down barriers. I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to learn a new instrument.”
Former soldier Tekle Mengsteab (33) and his family were forced to flee their home in Eritrea in north Africa in 2017.
Their journey to escape persecution involved torturous travel through Sudan, Turkey, Greece and Germany before Tekle arrived in Northern Ireland five months ago.
He hopes that his wife and child, who remain in Ethiopia, will be allowed to join him if he is granted asylum status.
“At home in Eritrea I used to play keyboards but I am so pleased to be learning the guitar,” he said.
“It is such a welcome relief to be given the opportunity to play music again thanks to Beyond Skin.
“Because of restrictions we are not allowed to work and have very few possessions.
“To be able to learn and play music is such a precious gift.”
The group’s guitar teacher adopted the new name Sarah when she arrived in Northern Ireland from Iran five months ago.
The dangers she faced in her homeland means she is too afraid to be identified.
Sarah had worked as a music teacher for seven years before she was forced to abandon her career and birthplace.
“I thought my life was at an end when I was forced to leave Iran,” she said.
“I had no idea I was even in Northern Ireland when I arrived first here.
“I was stuck in a hotel room knowing no-one and with no hope.
“Then I was introduced to Darren and the Beyond Skin charity and now I’m teaching guitar to people and doing what I love.
“It has literally saved my life.”