Refugee Week 2019 saw the North East based songwriting project Stories of Sanctuary draw in hundreds of new audience members on the first leg of their UK tour, as they visited Yorkshire (22 and 23 June 2019). Stories of Sanctuary visited the Migration Matters Festival in Sheffield as well as the University of Hull, one of the first ‘Universities of Sanctuary’ universities supporting those seeking sanctuary from war.

Stories of Sanctuary performing at the Migration Matters Festival at Theatre Deli, Sheffield, featuring singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher, viola player Raghad Haddad, The Sanctuary Seekers Choir, poet Hasna Al Hassoun and conductor Amy Ward (from left to right). Photo credit: Simone Rudolphi.

Stories of Sanctuary performing at the Migration Matters Festival at Theatre Deli, Sheffield, featuring singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher, viola player Raghad Haddad, The Sanctuary Seekers Choir, poet Hasna Al Hassoun and conductor Amy Ward (from left to right). Photo credit: Simone Rudolphi.

The choir, made up of young people from Syria, West Africa and Central America, sang original songs about their experiences of seeking sanctuary in the North East of England. The group includes vocalists, a guitarist, a percussionist and a viola player – Raghad Haddad – from the National Syrian Orchestra who have all fled from various conflicts across the world.

The weekend coincides with Refugee Week, a UK-wide festival of arts, cultural and educational events, celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK and promoting a better understanding of why people seek sanctuary.

For some in the choir, it was there first experience of performing on the stage. For Hadi, a 16 year old from Syria who has been a refugee since the age of 10, the tour was the first time he’d performed and he opened the concert playing the drums. For Aisha from Guinea Bissau, the tour made her realise that acting and singing is the future she wishes to pursue:

“Telling stories, putting people together from different backgrounds to tell their stories, sharing their experiences, it’s the most beautiful thing”

Soloist Aisha performing a song she helped write called ‘Paradise’. Photo credit: Simone Rudolphi

The project began in the city of Durham in the summer of 2018, curated by Durham singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher. Sam was a volunteer with City of Sanctuary at the time and believed the creative potential of the group could go along way. Through an Arts Council grant, Stories of Sanctuary was formed and a year later the group have now performed over 7 times, attracting hundreds of people each time.

The songs the group have written include ‘Let Us Be Together’ that includes the lyrics from Homs poet Hasna Al Hassoun, who lives in exile in County Durham fleeing Syria in 2012 after losing her family and her legs in the war.

The Yorkshire tour was not only about the music. It was a chance to visit a city the group would otherwise not have chance to come to and join in with one of the UK’s biggest Refugee festivals, The Migration Matters Festival, in its 4th year of running. Hasna’s sister Sabah Al Hassoun who also sings, coordinators the tour logistics, alongside Durham University student Beth. Sabah says “on the tour, we were hosted by local Sheffield residents. We were welcomed with warm hearts”. Conductor Amy Ward, resident of Durham, describes the impact of the project:

“Though we grew up in places far apart, in different cultures and with different languages, music crosses the boundaries those differences create. Music helps what we share come to the fore; and that’s not just true within the group, but also with the audiences who hear the songs, and those who have been kind enough to host and open their homes and community spaces to us, and share with us in turn”

Funds for the tour have been fundraised through a successful Crowdfund Campaign last winter by the group. The tour continues at the International Festival of Glass in Stourbridge on August 26th and Leicester Cathedral on August 27th. Visit our Tour page for more information on upcoming performances.

The group relaxing on Sunday morning between their Sheffield and Hull performances, after being hosted for lunch by Hull Help for Refugees. Photo credit: Simone Rudolphi

Stories of Sanctuary performing at Durham Cathedral, 21st March 2019. Credit: Sophie Nimmins

Last week, the Stories of Sanctuary music production drew in hundreds of crowds in Durham, Stockton and Newcastle – the start of a national UK tour for the group of Syrian refugees.

Stories of Sanctuary is a community songwriting project which emerged out of friendships between Durham residents and Syrian refugees. The choir perform songs, stories and poetry about their experiences and their hopes for the future, many of which were written by the choir members themselves in a series of songwriting workshops in the summer of 2018.

The group is led by singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher and includes viola player Raghad Haddad, who was a member of the National Syrian Orchestra, as well as Syrian poet Hasna Al Hassoun, and several Durham residents. Among the more experienced performers are people who had never sung in front of an audience before the project, but who are fast developing their performing skills and are excited to embark this year on a national tour.

Sabah, a member of the choir and the recently-appointed tour coordinator talks of her experience singing:

“Music is the language of the world. When I was singing I felt every word I sang. I sang from my heart to all the hearts of the audience. I wanted to tell them that despite pain and sadness, we are brave because sometimes you just need to hope and have faith things will work out”

Having launched their songs to a sold-out audience in Chapter House at Durham Cathedral in October 2018, it was fitting that Durham Cathedral was the venue for the first performance of the tour last Thursday, with 150 people attending, this time to see them perform in the Cathedral itself.

Durham University student Lucy Sheard returned to see the choir:

‘This was my second time watching the choir perform and I wasn’t disappointed. The music is so uplifting and it’s great to see such a diverse community come together to share their experiences and celebrate what we have in common.’

The following evening the group travelled to Stockton to perform at ARC, and on Sunday Sam Slatcher and Raghad Haddad performed an intimate gig at the Cumberland Arms in Newcastle, fusing Syrian classical music with North East folk.

Later in the year, the group are set to visit Yorkshire and the Midlands, playing at some of the UK’s newly emerging refugee festivals such as the Migration Matters Festival in Sheffield and Journeys Festival in Leicester.

The idea for the tour came when the choir were invited to perform their

songs in the Houses of Parliament, at partner organisation City of Sanctuary’s national event Sanctuary in Parliament. During December, the group of 20 raised £5500 through a successful Crowdfund campaign to enable them to tour this year. The choir have also professionally recorded an album with Arts Council funding.

The Stories of Sanctuary tour continues with performances at Sheffield’s Migration Matters Festival on 22nd June and at the University of Hull on 23rd June.

Stories of Sanctuary returns to the stage in March 2019!

In 2019, Stories of Sanctuary will embark on a UK tour, visiting the North East in March, Yorkshire in June, the Midlands in August and the South in November. The first set of dates for the North East are now released:

March 21 – Durham Cathedral
March 22 – ARC Stockton
March 24 – The Cumberland Arms, Newcastle (Raghad Haddad and Sam Slatcher only)
(Please book via the links above – advanced booking recommended)

Following the success of the launch last year, the Stories of Sanctuary community project returns to the North East! An emotive and poignant show of original songs written and performed by those with experience of seeking sanctuary, linking the past with the present. Drawing on Durham’s rich history of offering sanctuary – from the arrival of an exiled monastic community seeking sanctuary from the Vikings to modern stories of fleeing the civil war in Syria – Stories of Sanctuary warmly invites you into the project that inspired infectious friendships as well as deeply beautiful songs.
Stories of Sanctuary is made up of the Sanctuary Seekers Choir, featuring the National Syrian Orchestra’s Raghad Haddad along with the project’s curator and singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher. The project was rated 9/10 at its sold-out premiere at Durham Cathedral in October 2018 and the choir performed an exclusive set in the Houses of Parliament with partner organisation City of Sanctuary in November 2018.
For Tickets and More Information, please visit the Tour page of this website.

On 19th December, Stories of Sanctuary raised an incredible £1489 through an ‘auction of promises’ evening in the City of Durham, with all the fund raised going towards the Crowdfund Campaign. (Topping up the £4000 or so out of £5000 target we have currently raised, as of 21st December!)

(Credit: Sophie Nimmins)

The promises auctioned last night at North Road Methodist Church over a tasty Syrian cuisine included unique offerings from local residents, including a tour of the House of Lords by the Bishop of Durham, a commissioned poem by Syrian poet and songwriter Hasna Al Hassoun, as well as Arabic language lessons, cooking workshops, and cultural tours of the North East. Over 60 people turned up and £1075 were directly raised in the auction.

All the funds from the auction go towards the Crowdfund Campaign the group launched on the 7th December, to raise £5000 to bring the project to 5 new cities. Each tour will allow the young people in the group to develop their leadership skills as well as engaging new audiences in the powerful stories of fleeing war and the need to create safe spaces for those seeking sanctuary from war.

One of the choir members – Hasna, originally from Homs in Syria – had prepared a poem as a thank you for the support of the wider community. She exclaimed “I am not a stranger anymore, Durham gave me my home”.

Auctioneer and project member Pippa Bell was overwhelmed by the response: “I am so thrilled that we had so many unique experiences promised and a very generous crowd who came along to support this amazing project”

The groups’ songs have been released on a professionally recorded album curated by Durham singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher, and featuring Raghad Haddad – highly acclaimed viola player from the National Syrian Orchestra.

Slatcher, who coordinates the group, says “the aim of the show is not only to humanise refugees and celebrate their creativity, but also to show the power of music in creating new communities built on respect and friendship”.

To raise the funds to bring the Stories of Sanctuary project to 5 new locations, Stories of Sanctuary has launched a Crowdfund Campaign to raise £5000. We are live until the 4th January 1pm!

We will only make the £5000 if we hit the mark before the deadline… so if you’re able to pledge your support, or share the campaign, please do!

There are some fabulous rewards for your support, including signed CDs, framed artwork, framed lyrics to Like a Butterfly, as well the chance to have Stories of Sanctuary visit your town or city!

“Collaborative arts projects that attempt to bring different voices together can often flounder when the goodwill that surrounds them simply isn’t enough to produce something workable, or let us be honest, listenable. “Stories of Sanctuary” I’m pleased to report comfortably breaks out of any such mould and takes us on a beautiful, rich, cultural, historic and moving journey through the workshops and ideas that brought it into being. Singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher working with a group of Syrian refugees (The Sanctuary Seekers) and talented musicians Raghad Haddad (National Syrian Orchestra) and North East Instrumentalist Paul Martin, has forged together a collection of songs and musical montages that deliver you thoughtfully and carefully into the heart of the experience  of the sanctuary seeker.
              “‘City of Sanctuary’ cleverly sets the spoken reminiscences of a young Syrian Refugee’s escape from war alongside the strikingly similar experiences of a Durham residents’ forbears who fled from the front line in Belgium a century earlier. These two accounts are themselves surrounded by Sam’s music and lyrics reminding us that Durham has spent a millennia being a place of sanctuary for those seeking safety and a hope for the future. In ‘Like A Butterfly’ a fleeting moment during the project writing sessions has been captured as a moving and powerful musical metaphor for the struggle and pain that the refugees have been through – “I may have lost it all, but I’ve not lost my soul”. There are two achingly beautiful A cappella tracks performed in Arabic by singer Hasna Al Hassoun. The depth and feeling with which she delivers these two pieces sits powerfully within the album and draws attention to her deep longing for the lost ‘everyday’ of a divided homeland. ‘Swallow and Saint’ is a particularly beautiful song and one of Sam’s solo compositions documenting the rescue of a trapped bird during the workshop sessions. Sounding pleasingly like a contemporary Nick Drake with his vocal style and guitar playing, the metaphors once again sing powerfully of the refugees lived experience. 
             “There are many other highlights in a work that speaks loudly of hope in the midst of difficulty and hardship, light in the midst of dark and dangerous times. As you journey with Sam and his co-collaborators through Stories of Sanctuary you will experience an album of great beauty, peace and musical depth. It is not hard to hear catharsis in the lines of the songs, in the working of the instruments and the gathered voices. This project was way more than just an artistic exercise as the songs, their messages and performances push firmly back against the hate and blame that is all to prevalent in our times – they bring us a different way. As Sam reminds us, we should share a heartbeat of sanctuary, for “we are all pilgrims of a kind”.”
Gareth Davies-Jones.
Gareth Davies-Jones is a singer-songwriter with over a decade of hard graft and experience as a professional musician, writing, recording and playing his way around the UK & Ireland. Gareth is “one of the UK’s best-kept musical secrets, powerful songs and affecting performances” according to Properganda. Visit Gareth’s website to explore Gareth’s music, including a preview of his new solo Christmas album released 1st December 2018.

Gareth Davies-Jones

A soulful chorus of voices chanting “I may have lost it all, but I’ve not lost my soul” erupted in the Houses of Parliament last week (12th November 2018), as the Stories of Sanctuary project took to the stage at the annual Sanctuary in Parliament day.

Stories of Sanctuary performing in the Houses of Parliament. Photo credit: Simone J Rudolphi

Sanctuary in Parliament is organised by the grassroots movement City of Sanctuary that brings together refugees, asylum seekers and supporters of the movement, along with their MPs who had been invited to the event in the Houses of Parliament, Portcullis House. A total of 35 MPs attended the event who were invited by members of their local constituency campaigning for the right to work for people who have asylum claims outstanding for more than six months, the extension of refugee family reunion, as well as an end to indefinite immigration detention.

The event in Parliament came the day after a rapturous evening performance at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate Church, near Liverpool Street Station. Sam Slatcher, Raghad Haddad and Dewi Erwan performed, along with the choir. Special guest Hamsa Mounif joined the stage for an unexpected and painstakingly beautiful improved piece, accompanied by National Syrian Orchestra’s Raghad Haddad who’s mournful viola appears on the new Stories of Sanctuary album.

2019 is set to be a year of touring! Stories of Sanctuary will be returning to venues in the North East in the Spring, including ARC Stockton on 22nd March 2019 as well as Newton Aycliffe and Newcastle (TBC). The choir hopes to perform in other cities across the UK in 2019.

The Sanctuary Seekers Choir at St Botolph’s Church, Bishopsgate after a rapturous performance! Photo credit: Simone J Rudolphi 



Raghad Haddad, Sam Slatcher, Dewi Erwan and the Sanctuary Seekers Choir (left to right)

One hundred and seventy people packed out the Chapter House in Durham Cathedral last night (19th October) for the sold-out premier of the Stories of Sanctuary performance. The two hour performance curated by folk singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher brought together new songs created over the summer in workshops with Syrian refugees, along with traditional Syrian and North East-inspired music.

“Wow. What an experience, both musically and emotionally”

The performance took the audience on a journey from stories of old – from an exiled monastic community laying to rest the body of the much loved Saint Cuthbert in the 10th century (in Durham Cathedral) – to recent stories of being forced to leave home, to the desire to “live together and “dream as one”, as one of the songs began. The songs were brought alive by the Sanctuary Seekers Choir – the participants themselves – most of whom had never sung in front of an audience.

“Stories and hearing the voices of those who are often overlooked or unheard, who have actually undergone the dangers of migration/seeking refuge”

At least six of the 12 songs had been directly written in the workshops. “I did not expect we had this talent in ourselves”, remarks Nousayba, “the songs just express exactly how we feel”.

Wafa conducting the choir

The performers included guest musician Raghad Haddad from the National Syrian Orchestra, who joined the project in August to record viola for the album. One of the highlights of the show included an improvised piece with Hurdy Gurdy player Paul Martin that fused together 12th century pan-European folk with classical Syrian music.

Before an enchanting encore of drumming and improvised viola, Sam Slatcher performed a solo acoustic performance of ‘City of Sanctuary’; the song he wrote that inspired the project, with the music video reaching over 75,000 views on social media earlier this year.

Raghad Haddad, from the National Syrian Orchestra, improvising with multi-instrumentalist Paul Martin

The songs appear on an album that has been recorded by Sam along with Raghad, Paul and participants from the workshops singing and performing on the songs. The album Stories of Sanctuary has been produced by Ron Angus at Studio One, County Durham. The album is available to preview ahead of the release on 9th November on Bandcamp.

The project is funded by the National Lottery via the Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts programme.

The recording for the Stories of Sanctuary album began on the 9th August 2018, at Studio One with music producer Ron Angus in his home studio in County Durham. Ten new songs that tell the stories about seeking sanctuary – four of which directly written at the Stories of Sanctuary workshops – have now been recorded. We’ve had a total of eight participants from the workshops lay down their vocal or instrumental parts, plus guest musicians Raghad Haddad (viola player from the National Syrian Symphony Orchestra) and Paul Martin (multi-instrumentalist and specialist in historical music) in the studio. Ron has been recording professional music in his studio for the last 19 years, including leading British singer-songwriter Jez Lowe and the band Lindisfarne’s Rod Clements.

For most of those from the project who came to the studio, it has been their first experience in a recording studio and singing in front of a microphone. There is something very special about listening back to your voice for the first time, through a high quality pair of headphones. This was certainly the case for sisters Hasna and Sabah Hassoun (see photo to the left) who joined the studio to record their vocal parts to the songs ‘So May we Find Peace’ and ‘Like a Butterfly’, as well as a song that poet and songwriter Hasna had written. Hasna’s songs are inspired by overcoming very traumatic experiences she faced living through the war in Syria, as well as her motivation for peace and harmony. The song ‘Let Us Be Together’ cries out for a world in which we realise we all breathe from the same air, live under the same sky, and bleed the same blood. Her song will no doubt be a highlight on the album.

On one of the seven days recording, we had huge privilege of working with Raghad Haddad, viola player from the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. Raghad has performed across the world with the Orchestra of Syria Musicians, as well as performed with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and now lives in the UK having fled from the war in Syria in 2016. Raghad now performs with the Orchestra of All Saints MAS in Brighton and the London Syrian Ensemble, a group of Syrian professional musicians which performs traditional and classical oriental music around the UK.

Ron Angus (left), Raghad Haddad (middle left), Paul Martin (middle right), and Sam Slatcher (right)

Raghad performed viola parts arranged for three of the songs as well as spontaneously improvised with folk musician Paul Martin, who goes by the name ‘The Dunholm Piper’. Paul is a multi-instrumentalist from the North East of England who plays an impressive number of instruments including bagpipes, the fiddle as well as the Hurdy-Gurdy. Their improvisation brought together pan-European folk, with classical Middle Eastern quarter-tones in an unforgettable half an hour of music, reminding us of the deeply woven nature of music that has no respect for divisions or borders.

The album will be released in the Autumn and performed at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October 2018, along with Raghad Haddad and members of the Stories of Sanctuary project.


To commemorate Refugee Week, a gathering of thirty people – including Syrian refugees recently settled in County Durham – met in the city of Durham on Sunday to explore Durham’s history of sanctuary past and present. The workshop is the first of three in an Arts Council funded project called ‘Stories of Sanctuary’ curated by Durham singer-songwriter Sam Slatcher, along with members of Durham City of Sanctuary. The project encourages people to share their own stories of sanctuary, alongside learning about ancient stories from the past, through photography, creative writing, and song.

A group photo inside Durham Cathedral

Photo credit SJ Rudolphi

The event began with a sanctuary walking tour around Durham Cathedral to learn about the history of sanctuary in the city. The tour included the arrival of St Cuthbert’s body carried by an exiled community fleeing the Vikings in the 10th century, the famous ‘Sanctuary Knocker’ on the north entrance to the Cathedral, through to modern stories of people seeking sanctuary from war and conflict.

The group then received a warm welcome by the Dean of Durham Cathedral, The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett, who explained how the day was the feast of St John the Baptist, who both Christians and Muslims revere and who grew up in a suburb of Damascus, just like some of the Syrian refugees in the group. The afternoon continued with a participatory photography tour around the city, facilitated by professional photographer Simone Rudolphi, and the evening concluded with an impromptu singalong and traditional folk dancing in the evening sun in the shadows of the Cathedral. One young Syrian living in Darlington expressed, “it was a completely new experience for me. I learnt we all have different stories and all looking for family in one way or another”.

A group of people around a woman smiling

Photo by SJ Rudolphi

The project is inspired by Sam Slatcher’s folk song ‘City of Sanctuary’ which was released online in January 2018 through a catchy music video that went viral on social media back in January. The song’s chorus chants that all are seeking sanctuary: “In these ancient streets, there’s a heartbeat of sanctuary. All are pilgrims of a kind”. Sam hopes the storytelling project will change the way we think about people seeking sanctuary in the North East:

“It’s all about creating a new story about the rich history of sanctuary that has shaped the city we know today, and in doing so discovering our own story of finding sanctuary among each other”

The stories that will emerge from the three workshops will inspire the creation of creative writing, poems and songs that will be performed by Sam Slatcher and Raghad Haddad, viola player of the National Syrian Orchestra (herself a refugee from Syria) along with participants from the workshops at Durham Cathedral on the 19th October. The project has received National Lottery funding via the Arts Council’s Grant for the Arts programme.