The Monthly discusses the Musicians, Artists at Risk Resettlement Scheme (MARRS) with Beyond Skin’s Darren Ferguson

What is the situation with the Musicians at Risk Resettlement Scheme at present?

Musicians Artists at Risk Resettlement Scheme was set up in September 2021. To date we have supported over 200 adults and children in asylum seeking or refugee status – many in temporary hotel accommodation.

Although originally set up to give musicians (professional and amateur) an extra layer of support, we have been helping many self professed ‘non musicians/artists’ who are using our music and arts resources for their mental health and opportunities to get out into communities and connect with people.

The Guitar Clubs have been a great success with close to 100 guitars donated by the public and then given to adults and children. The club teacher, or boss as we call her, is Sara from Iran who is also seeking sanctuary in Belfast.

Although we received some financial support from funders/investors, that money is for logistics costs (e.g. hiring a bus) so MARRS to date has been run by Beyond Skin voluntarily.

We have always valued partnership and in this case it is no different, in fact we need more. Lief a guitar tech, Niall and Rocky at Start Together Studios, the Oh Yeah Music Centre team, Duncairn Arts & recently The Black Box have all given us great support, which carries through to supporting those who need it.

Each day is overwhelming, especially my whatsapp, as many of those we are helping are messaging me. Most are bored and want to work and do things so it is trying to accommodate activities or signpost them to opportunities.

All this takes so much time, building trust and relationships, especially with those who feel they have been let down by society.. The best relationship building is around music, arts, food and engaging with nature. So with help from friends, we have organised sightseeing trips. These have been highly valued but of course many funders don’t see a trip to the beach as a good use of money, so again we and friends are paying for these things out of our own pocket. MARRS is growing rapidly and each day we are coming across amazing talent that can offer so much to settled communities and our economy is given the chance.

Why is Beyond Skin involved with this project?

Beyond Skin have been collaborating with Afghan Women’s Orchestra on a project which was recognised as a UK Project of the Year by the Lottery. Young musicians in Northern Ireland produced music videos with members of the Afghan Women’s Orchestra and some online shared events were hosted.

On 15 August 2021 everything changed when the Taliban took control again. Many of us reacted to do whatever we could from trying to get people out to trying to find host places of sanctuary. Through this daily chaos of 1000’s of messages circulating that I met others outside of Afghanistan who also had a connection. Protect Musicians at Risk was launched and we all set up ICFAM

For me, I thought how could Northern Ireland play a role in this. So building on what I knew about the Syrian resettlement scheme we set up MARRS – playing to our strengths by focusing on music and arts.

Have you had much support from government or statutory agencies?

From the fall of Afghanistan we did get good interest and support across the board from Politicians as everyone explored how to help. Unfortunately that interest with some politicians slided quickly away.

Through MARRS we had an idea to house Afghan refugees in people’s homes as a better way of accelerating integration. Between members of the public and some property developers and holiday home owners we got close to 100 beds offered. We consulted much with other people/organisations working with refugees as it wasn’t as simple as just putting someone into another families home – so it was thinking though a solid realistic plan.

What interested many was offers of beds within some loyalist estates which we loved as that alone challenged another stereotype. And I support that is were we lost the department of communities and others with their political agendas.

Despite many proposals and meeting requests to NI Executive and Home Office the Homes for Afghans offer was not taken up. In fact some dismissing it as an unworkable silly idea.

Move the clock onto current times with the Ukraine War and not only within weeks did the Government set up a Homes for Ukraines scheme but they were throwing money at a plan not well thought out and will no consultation. I still daily get people contacting me for advice on how the scheme workshops as their local MLA doesn’t know.

The public support for the people of Ukraine has been amazing and so welcomed. The problem lies within Governments especially Home Office. Our question is why one race of victims is treated differently that others? You know how that reads

What do you think needs to happen?

Politicians need to engage more fully with those of us on the ground doing this work. Getting a reply or a meeting with some is impossible. What needs to happen is the same old – dump the sectarian rhetoric, stop diving people and take a leaf out of the arts community which does the opposite and brings people together.

We are asking all those in the creative sector to help MARRS in any way they can – example opportunities for people to attend a concert or exhibition as a guest.

Being afraid to speak out and do things that may get us into trouble is not necessarily a good enough reason for not doing anything.

Find more information about Beyond Skin –

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New Belfast Community Arts Initiative trading as Community Arts Partnership is a registered charity (XR 36570) and a company limited by guarantee (Northern Ireland NI 37645).Registered with The Charity Commission as New Belfast Community Arts Initiative - NIC105169.