How music therapy is treating survivors of torture

Harmin Sijercic, a refugee from Bosnia, has been running creative music therapy at Freedom from Torture for over 16 years. He reflects on how music therapy has helped him on his own journey escaping war, and how he's since used music to support others to rebuild their lives.

I remember a particular session very well. There was a Kurdish man who came into my music therapy room and started singing without any prompt. He sang about surviving torture in Turkey. He longed for the situation in his home country to improve. He sang about his anxiety, his immigration status. He worried about his health. When he stopped, everything was silent. It felt like a burden had been lifted. When he left, it took me a few moments to reflect on what had just happened. It was incredible.   

As a music therapist, I’ve experienced and facilitated moments like this many times. I work with people who are receiving therapy for the long-term consequences of trauma, often experienced in countries that I’ve never been to and in languages that I can’t speak.  

The first steps of music therapy

At first, most people are hesitant. They often tell me that they’ve never played music before or don’t know any songs to play. But music therapy is open-ended and spontaneous. I encourage my clients by playing an improvised sequence on the piano, or another instrument more common in their home country. Soon the notes will be all their own, completely different to what I originally played to them. They are engaged and connected with the music. Neither of us know where it’s going to go. And this can be very powerful.

The freedom of non-verbal forms of communication

Being non-verbal, music is a form of therapy that can be freeing to people who otherwise might need interpreters or feel restrained by their knowledge of English. You both feel connected by the experience of playing and, throughout the session, music helps people grapple with experiences that are troubling, or sad, happy, and beautiful.

I remember one client who wanted to sing a French children’s song. He badly wanted to remember how it went. He tried to sing it and, bit by bit over the session, he reconstructed the song from his memory. For him, it brought back moments spent with his parents. Happy memories. He started crying. The vivid images kept coming and the song for him was a way to connect with his parents, and with safer and more certain times.  

Music therapy as escapism

Generally, people feel calmer after music therapy. They leave with a feeling of safety. The sessions give people the chance to both escape and to confront challenging thoughts and memories. Leaving whatever is going on in their life to step into the music room, and into a musical state, can sometimes bring them clarity or evoke memories and parts of themselves that aren’t otherwise easy to access. The simple act of setting aside time to focus on themselves is also very important. But then they leave, once again, to face the uncertainties of their lives and go out into a large city that can sometimes feel alienating.

The refugee experience as a shared language

The refugee experience is, in a way, another shared language between myself and my clients. I started learning music in my home country of Bosnia, in a small town called Gorazde close to the Serbian border. Ever since I can remember, there was always music in my house, and I was exposed to all kinds – Elgar, Bowie, The Beatles. When I was 14 years old, I went from listening to studying it and attended a music school in Sarajevo for four years.

Then, in the spring of 1992, when I was 24, the bombs came, and it was no longer safe for anyone to stay. What started as occasional tensions, like clouds gathering overhead, quickly turned into a violent war. I can remember a deep feeling of uncertainty and I, along with many other people I know, lost friends and family members. It’s estimated that 100,000 people died in just under three years.

Because my parents and brother did not have valid passports, I had to travel without them to Slovenia, where my friends lived. At the end of 1992, I managed to get on a convoy of buses that took Bosnian refugees to England. It was at a Bosnian Refugee centre in Birmingham, when I first learned about music therapy. The idea immediately appealed to me. At its heart it combined two things that are important to me: working with people in need and my love of music.

Music therapy today: how Freedom for Torture is bringing music to survivors of trauma

I began to study music therapy at the Nordoff Robbins centre in London and learnt about the different practices in this relatively new but now-widely recognised form of therapy. After I qualified, I started helping to deliver vital therapeutic services at Freedom from Torture and I’ve been here for 16 years.

Working with refugees, I’ve seen some of my own experiences in the stories of the people I help. War, loss, and displacement all leave painful marks on people. And while trauma is complicated and unique to each person, it takes a great amount of courage and dedication to start the hard work of rebuilding your life.

On 18th March, 75 doctors will come together to deliver a concert at London’s prestigious Cadogan Hall to raise vital funds for our treatment services, including music therapy. This is the 14th time a group of musical medical professionals will take to the stage and my excitement hasn’t faded. The prospect of an orchestra composed of doctors who help people medically and are now helping us with their music too is very powerful.  

Article first published in Classical Music