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Syrian choir refused visa to perform at Unesco event in Brussels

15:22 04/07/2018

A choir from Syria that was scheduled to perform tonight at Bozar in Brussels had to cancel at the last minute because Belgium refused their visa request. The Gardenia women’s choir was meant to perform as part of the Syrian Living Heritage night, organised in co-operation with Unesco.

The Gardenia Choir (pictured) has toured extensively in Syria and travelled to Lebanon in the spring to perform a programme called Bridal Folk Songs, also at the invitation of Unesco. They were meant to perform the same programme in Brussels as part of Unesco’s Emergency Safeguarding Syrian Cultural Heritage project.

The choir and Unesco have expressed anger and disappointment at Belgium’s decision. According to the choir’s manager, Safana Bakleh, all necessary documentation was submitted well ahead of time. The entire choir, including musicians – numbering 29 people – were then called in to the Belgian consulate in Beirut, which Bakleh called “a humiliating experience”.

The group was questioned for five hours and ultimately required to perform to prove they were really professional singers and musicians. They also had to describe technical details about their performances.

Lie-detector test

“The same questions were continually posed again as if we were undergoing a lie-detector test,” Bakleh told De Morgen. Two weeks later, Unesco was informed that the visas had been denied.

“The official reason was that we did not have sponsors in Belgium – someone who would be financially responsible for each and every one of us during our stay,” said Bakleh. “That is not only unlikely but impossible for a musical group of 29 people.”

The Immigration Office in Brussels told De Morgen that sponsors are required if individuals do not have a regular income. The choir does not earn enough to be considered financially stable. The authorities also said that there was no official request from Unesco, which the international organisation firmly refutes.

“We had submitted everything required for the visa request,” said Cristina Menegazzi of Unesco’s Beirut office. The Belgian consulate in Beirut did not respond to questions posed by De Morgen.

Other Syrian musicians have been given visas to travel to Belgium. A few months ago, a few musicians were allowed to enter the country as part of the Imagine Tour, organised by Belgian journalist Rudi Vranckx.

Photo courtesy Love Damascus

Written by Lisa Bradshaw