When Syrian singer Ghaliaa Chaker was given the task of creating a UNHCR-backed lullaby to help children in war zones sleep, the request struck a deep chord with her, because of her own family's life journey.
After more than a decade of conflict in Syria, Chaker, 25, has endured heartbreaking tales of anguish suffered by her family and friends and has witnessed their trauma first-hand.
The musician, who grew up in Dubai, told The National she knew the lullaby was going to be one of the most important compositions of her life when she started writing it.
“It was really emotional,” she said. “I grew up in the UAE and I have always been homesick, even though I’d travel back to Syria every summer.
“This was like telling a story that I didn’t really experience but I actually know how it felt because I have had family who have been directly affected and impacted by this whole mess for the past 10 to 11 years of war and continuing tension, so it was easy for me to visualise and imagine.
“I just went back with my family and we had a conversation about it and I said, 'Can you guys share some ideas about how you felt, the kind of trauma you went through?' I was able to write Lullaby with all these ideas and opinions.
“I think because they were in the midst of it and they lived it from start to finish – it was their daily routine for 10 years straight.
"It affects your behaviours, your mindset, how you see life. It's traumatising.
“The trauma doesn’t easily wash off, you live with it, you try your best to heal from it, but it sticks with you and stays with you and grows with you.
“I think having the chance to have that conversation with someone who has been through it is a privilege and I’m really lucky to have had a sneak peek on that.”
Lullaby is sung in Arabic and played on Syrian airwaves
Retailer Babyshop, which launched in Bahrain in 1973, sponsored the Frequencies of Peace initiative to help children in war-torn areas and disaster zones sleep.
The concept of the lullaby, which is sung in Arabic, was to restore peace to their bedtime.
It used clinical research in music therapy and neuroscience that identified the specific musical characteristics that trigger certain emotions in the brain.
Its opening lyrics give a sense of reassurance to the infant: "Close your eyes, those beautiful eyes. You will see the stars shining just for you."
The song is played on Syrian airwaves every night at 8pm local time to replace the sounds of war – and reminds adults that children are listening too.
Even before the earthquakes in February, a third of children in Syria showed signs of psychological distress including anxiety, sadness, fatigue and trouble sleeping, according to a 2021 assessment by Unicef.
Nearly five million children born in Syria since March 2011 have known nothing but war and conflict, and in many parts of the country, children and families continue to live in fear of violence, landmines and other explosive remnants of war, it said.
This led to the lullaby initiative receiving the backing of the UN’s refugee agency.
UN seeks comfort for children
Raefah Makki, campaigns officer for the UNCHR’s Private Sector Partnerships in Mena, told The National the project was important and the organisation hoped it would help to bring comfort.
“The number of displaced people around the world has reached a record 110 million,” Ms Makki said.
“Over half of the world’s refugees are children, many of whom have suffered severe trauma and spent their childhoods away from home, often completely separated from their families and loved ones.
“UNHCR is committed to advocating for the protection and support of all displaced people, including refugees, and mobilising the public is an integral part of that effort.
“To raise awareness and compassion, UNHCR collaborates with a wide array of partners.
"As needs of forcibly displaced people increase, we believe that every action, no matter how big or small, counts, and we will not spare any effort to build on every partnership, even if it yields support and brings relief for just one refugee.”
Channelling the power of music
The lullaby has been developed with specialist neuroscientists from the US, working with specialists commissioned by the music therapy app Spiritune.
Dr Daniel Bowling, a neuroscientist from New York University, produces music to help with mental health and wellness.
“Baby Shop wanted to do something to bring awareness and help these children with music,” Dr Bowling told The National.
“If you have ever sung to children, even if you haven’t, there is not a clear genre.
"You think Twinkle Twinkle [Little Star] or Brahms, and you will have heard children’s toys that play lullabies but they are not necessarily suitable for sleep.
"For example, try to imagine trying to sleep to something with a glockenspiel in it.
“So our work was relaying this to the musician and informing her of the parameters to help her create an excellent composition.
“We said, 'Dial back, this is about repetition and simplicity and harmonies.' It’s really minimal and she has this beautiful, powerful voice, and owning that soothing tone were all things we tried to encourage.
“What the musicians have discovered is very valuable and it's about channelling that and focusing on the part you need for a particular purpose.
“I had to tell myself this is something, if it even makes just 10 people pay a little bit more attention then that’s great.
“Bottom line, we have all these problems in the world and music is an ancient technology people have used therapeutically to bond together to express themselves and resolve conflict.”
Chaker said her grandmother cried when she first heard the song and that the feedback from parents had been overwhelming.
“I’m really grateful the UNHCR is giving it attention and they are getting into it because it is an important cause,” she said.
“We need to focus on kids being able to feel safe at night, being able to sleep at peace, not worrying about what is going to happen tomorrow, if a bomb is going to go off and ruin their home or take away a parent, and I think Lullaby achieves this.
“For children to be able to know that someone else knows what they are going through by a song or lullaby, that’s an amazing accomplishment.
“It’s very hard for a traumatised child growing up with a lot of stuff around, a lot of conflict.
"It’s important for them to look for a source to let their emotions out and to think that is OK – what you are feeling is OK, you are not alone.
"And I think Lullaby really has this message.”