Music

How a band formed in an asylum hotel is giving refugees hope: 'Each note comes from the heart'

Some bands meet in the pub. This collection of musicians met in the unlikeliest of places: an asylum hotel

Ardavan of The Unknowns

Ardavan of The Unknowns has ambitions to play Glastonbury. Image: Akil Wilson

Ardavan and Navid used to play in underground bands in Iran. They didn’t know each other back then – Navid’s band played folk and pop, while Ardavan played illicit metalcore gigs, sometimes in friends’ gardens. As hobbies go, this isn’t particularly risk-free in Iran, as the government is likely to see you as a Satanist. In 2015, members of the metal band Confess were arrested, with one remaining in solitary confinement for three months and receiving a sentence of 12 years and 74 lashes after fleeing the country.

On the face of it, the stakes were much lower when the pair took to the stage together for a gig in London’s Union Chapel last month. But the fact they made it there at all tells a story of resilience.

Some bands meet in the pub. This collection of musicians met in the unlikeliest of places: an asylum hotel. Performing as The Unknowns, with members from Syria, Kosovo, Ethiopia and Ghana, they’ve found a unique sound, forged from their experience seeking sanctuary and navigating the UK’s asylum system.

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“The audience was amazing, we didn’t expect that much joy and passion,” says guitarist and vocalist Ardavan. 

“We were kidding about Glastonbury, but who knows?”

Ardavan arrived in the UK with his wife in 2022, initially coming to study a masters. But when revolution broke out in Iran, he realised it was unsafe to return home. Navid arrived from France in a boat in September 2021. Both found themselves waiting for their claims to be processed in the same London asylum hotel.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work while their claims are processed, and can expect to wait years for decisions while living on a weekly allowance of less than £10. Navid describes life in the hotel as “boring days”, like being in a cage. 

That was until they found out about sessions run by the charity Hear Me Out. Every Tuesday at 11am, they’d gather and make use of their musical skills. “We all spent the whole week to get that time and to rehearse, because in that time we totally forgot everything,” says Ardavan. For Navid it was a happy time: “You are thinking about music, you don’t worry about everything.”

There was one hitch: Ardavan didn’t have a guitar, or the money to get one. Luckily, an instrument found its way to him, donated by the bassist from Gorillaz to a charity in Lewisham.

As they both waited for their claims to be processed – in the end Ardavan waited 16 months and Navid two and a half years – the UK’s government passed a series of laws trying to reform the asylum system. On the day they speak to the Big Issue, the government’s Rwanda plan has just passed parliament. Coming at great cost to the taxpayer, it’s supposed to be a deterrent. Would it have stopped Navid, who like tens of thousands of others, crossed the Channel in a small boat?

“You have to go. You have to go. For me, that night I got on the boat, bad people wanted to shoot us with guns. We had to do that,” he says.

“It’s very dangerous, very, very dangerous. Big ships cross in front of you, and you don’t know a second of the future.”

Against that backdrop, there is music. The different origins of the members bring fun challenges; varying scales, harmonies, and song structures. Yet all have a very specific thing in common: they fled their home. “Those stories or those narratives are from different perspectives, but they have the same line between all of them,” says Ardavan.

After a while practising covers, the nascent band were asked to work on some original songs. Soon, enough came about for an EP. One song, Smile, is inspired by long walks Ardavan took when he had nothing to do in the hotel.

“On those days we walked through the canal near our hotel, and sometimes I just looked at my wife’s face and she just laughed at me, and the only thing that made me more active, or come out of my melancholy, was her smile,” he says.

Recording an album is not easy in Iran. But in the UK, Hear Me Out smoothed the way, helping them record the EP and arranging a practice gig and a photoshoot. Working in immigration detention centres and accommodation, the charity has helped thousands access music as an escape, with hundreds of songs recorded in the process.

“I just thought, wow, it was so easy. For 30 years I didn’t have the chance to do it so easy, and they provided everything. You are a musician, just go and play,” says Ardavan.

Navid adds: “Whenever I don’t have any work to do, I’m playing my guitar and playing piano.”

“Each note comes from the heart,” he says. Without this opportunity, Navid may well have forgotten his hard-won guitar skills. “Hear Me Out have taken my hands and I want to say I am very happy with you,” he says. “The music is like going up from the dark to light.”

One of songs on The Unknowns’ EP was inspired by Navid’s walks while waiting for his asylum claim to be processed. Image: Akil Wilson

After the gig at Union Chapel, there are lofty ambitions and a sense of purpose. Navid dreams of The Unknowns playing a concert in Europe for refugees.

There is a chance to tell a different story of what refugees bring, says Ardavan: “Maybe we can show them that different people from different parts of the world, they have abilities and they can bring you joy, entertain you. This is another vision that we can have.

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“Now we’ve found our mission, we can be the sound of people who are in the hotels, or refugees in London and the UK. We have that.”

You can help more refugees by donating to Hear Me Out.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

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