BEIRUT (AP) — Hassan Youssef was 10 years old when a local Syrian composer discovered his talent: a deep powerful voice that was particularly resonant for traditional songs.
It wasn't long, however, before Syria's grinding civil war nearly shattered Youssef's hope of polishing his natural gift. He and his family left their home in a suburb of Damascus and traveled to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to become one of the millions of Syrians living in refugee camps around the region.
When the Action for Hope Music School announced it was seeking talented children among the refugee community in Lebanon to train, Youssef's family were the first to encourage him to enroll. A year and half later, the now 14-year-old Youssef is one of two dozen children who graduated from the program, which was capped by a busy and lively concert in a central Beirut theater Friday.
Youssef, a lead singer in the concert, had come a long way from the early days of the war when a mortar round fell near his family's home.
"We only heard the sound of a mortar, it fell near us," said Youssef, whose shy manner contradicts a deep and impressive performance of traditional Syrian songs. "When we looked it had apparently brought down a whole building. That is all I remember."
Music, he says, "makes one forget everything. Music is the most important thing."
Youssef is one of nearly 3 million children who have been displaced by the war. In Lebanon, there are more than 1 million registered refugees, nearly half of them children. Some observers believe many more are not registered.
The UNESCO-funded Action for Hope program Youssef attended has trained 24 of those displaced children for over a year and a half. It also aims to preserve the musical heritage of Syria and the region, offering classes in theory and the history of Arabic music, and teaching students the oud or Buzuq, two-string instruments used in classical Arabic and Turkish music, as well as traditional songs from different parts of Syria and the region.
The crowd at the graduation concert, many of them proud family members, cheered enthusiastically as the children played a repertoire of over a dozen songs from Syria, Egypt and Turkey. The crowd sang along and clapped to their performance of "muwashahat" from Aleppo, a form of poetic ballad for which the Syrian city is famous. The band also performed famous old Egyptian songs, stumbling some as they pronounced the Egyptian dialect.
The spirit during the more than 60-minute performance was elated, and Youssef drew a long cheer after performing an old deep-voiced song.
Youssef said he is now planning with colleagues to form a new band to play commercially whenever they can.
Director of Action for Hope, Basma el-Husseiny, said the music school offers children traumatized by the war and displacement an avenue to express themselves and overcome the sense of being a victim. The organization also has a video and theater program.
"Art gives strength. It emanates from the ability to create and at the same time to appreciate creativity," el-Husseiny said. "This strength is needed by people who are marginalized, deprived and undergoing difficult circumstances much more than the rich."
Fawaz Baker, a Syrian music adviser for the project and the former head of a music academy in Aleppo, said he picked 24 children from a total of 200 students who applied. He chose to train them in a diverse set of songs from Turkey, Egypt and Syria's region.
"We tried to diversify, so that the children can choose in the future," he said.
Action for Hope is now taking its program to Jordan, where 20 new Syrian students have also enrolled to learn music.