Music soothes savaged minds of the child victims who survived years of brutal intifada

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The Independent Online

It is 8.30am and Sheena Boyle's class of 10 children aged seven to 10 are singing with all the gusto the lines deserve:

It is 8.30am and Sheena Boyle's class of 10 children aged seven to 10 are singing with all the gusto the lines deserve:

" Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus,

Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus.

Ye cannae shove yer granny,

'Cos she's yer mammy's mammy,

Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus".

The old Glasgow street song has travelled well. For these children are Palestinians who have lived all their lives in the Aida refugee camp, and are only dimly aware what the words mean.

That it does not sound as incongruous as it should is a tribute to Mrs Boyle, a pioneer of using music as a tool for counselling those traumatised, as all these outwardly cheerful and excited children have been to varying degrees, by conflict.

They warm up with a range of percussion instruments, triangle, maraccas, drum, wooden block, tambourine and cymbals among them, accompanied by recordings of familiar Arab children's songs.

Each child takes an instrument and tries to make the other guess what sound he has in mind: some exposing darker memories, like the sound of troops beating on the door, a bomb, rocks being hurled, others not dark at all: church bells, a sound familiar in Bethlehem if less so in the rest of the West Bank, the drum beaten before Suhoor, the last meal before the Ramadan fast.

The children play an elaborate game of musical chairs. They have a short and deafening "angry" session, making as much noise with the instruments as possible. And then Mrs Boyle, a retired primary teacher from Prestwick, and an advance level member of the UK Association of Christian Counsellors, encourages them to shut their eyes as they listen to a lush, dreamy extract of John Barry's theme music for the film Out of Africa, chosen because of, rather than despite of, its unfamiliarity to Palestinian ears.

Afterwards, Mrs Boyle asks each child to say what the music made them think of. There are only two boys in the class. Amjad, a quiet 10-year-old who has trouble sleeping, says he remembers how his aunt was hit in the family home by shrapnel from an explosive device during an Israeli raid for militants.

He tells how her husband "tried to call an ambulance but it didn't come. When he called again she was still alive. But when he called the last time she had died". The story seems almost too neat an example of how the therapy can work. But Mrs Boyle says: "That's the first time he has talked about this. I know the story is true because his mother told me about it. The important thing is, I didn't ask him to say that."

Mrs Boyle is especially proud of Malak, also 10 and the oldest of two sisters in her group who saw their father shot dead as he stood at the window early in the intifada. "She refused intervention. She wouldn't talk about it at all. She didn't cry for three years." Then in one of the counselling sessions with Mrs Boyle, she wept for the first time.

Mrs Boyle says that says that since then, she has stopped wetting the bed, her school results have improved, and she is less aggressive.

That Mrs Boyle, who has just finished her third three-month period as the camp's volunteer musical counsellor, is addressing something real, is not in doubt. Aida, a camp where 1,800 of the 4,500 inhabitants are children, has had its fair share of what Mrs Boyle says are the classic post-intifada disorders, ranging from nightmares and physical aggression to panic, phobias, and psychosomatic illness. Figures this week from the UN to mark International Children's Day say that in UNRWA schools in refugee camps, 20 per cent of pupils display hyper-tension symptoms, 16 per cent low achievement rates, and 11.5 per cent fear and anxiety. In the West Bank alone, in the three years since the beginning of the intifada pass rates dropped dramatically, by 12 per cent in the ninth grade for Arabic, by 35 per cent for mathematics in the sixth grade, and by 35 per cent for fourth-grade science.

Mrs Boyle's mentor is Professor Nigel Osborne, the Reid professor of music at Edinburgh University whose passion for music therapy is behind the foundation of the Pavarotti Centre in Mostar which tries to rehabilitate children traumatised by the Balkan conflict. Professor Osborne has now seen his work incorporated in the Bosnian school curriculum.

And Mrs Boyle would like to see the same happen here. Funding, now dependent on two Scottish Episcopalian charities and another set up by Edinburgh bankers, is in short supply.

She hopes Professor Osborne will visit this year to help train more music counsellors."At present every time I go home, the work stops," she says. Nisreen Azzeh, a local science teacher who helps to run the voluntary Lajee Centre at Aida says there is no regular music in schools. "Since Sheena came here we have seen how much the children have improved."

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