In a different life, Thabet Azzawi and Qutaiba Abu Rashed might not be friends.
One is Syrian, the other Palestinian. One is an atheist, the other is a Muslim. One is clean shaven and pale-skinned. The other is bearded and darker-skinned. But for all of their differences, they are united in two crucial ways: both of them are refugees and both are musicians.
Azzawi and Rashed are two members of a 20-person brass ensemble called Banda Internationale, which formed in 2015 in response to a xenophobic movement in Eastern Germany called “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Orient” (PEGIDA) that peaked at around 20,000 supporters.
Banda Internationale has played at more than 40 far-right rallies, in an attempt to spread a message of love and acceptance in the face of hate and intolerance, according to their founder, Michal Tomaszewski, who spoke with Global Citizen. The group has also played music for refugees at camps and hostels where they awaited asylum.
Originally a brass band called Banda Comunale, made up of 11 primarily German musicians, the group expanded in 2015 in a major way, going from playing at weddings and social gatherings to performing in front of a tougher crowd: far-right rallies.
That same year, the group began to hold auditions for refugee musicians to join the band as part of a project to show the different faces of integration in Germany.
“We want to demonstrate the positive effects of migration and how it can enrich and enhance the lives of those already living here,” the group’s website reads.
“Now we’re playing for almost two years together,” Tomaszewski told Global Citizen. “It’s not about fighting, it’s about society and about living with each other.”
The group now consists of nine refugees and immigrants from five countries (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Burkina Faso), along with the 11 original members, and regularly plays concerts throughout Germany. They play across a wide-range of genres from traditional German folk music to Middle-Eastern music that features uncommon and historical instruments like the oud.
Banda Internationale / Moritz Schlieb
Banda Internationale / Heimat Sound
Banda Internationale / Moritz Schlieb
Azzawi and Rashed are a case-in-point that people of different perspectives can come together for a shared goal.
“We are different people from all over the world, different religion and different ideas, but [when] we are us together in the stage, [we] speak one language,” Rashed told Global Citizen, after a show at an art opening in Dresden.
For both of them, being involved with the Banda Internationale gave them a sense of family, of belonging, in a new and unfamiliar setting.
Especially for Rashed, living in Dresden has presented its fair share of challenges. Rashed is Muslim and has a thick beard; his mother, who also lives in Dresden, wears a hijab. But even despite incidents where he felt discriminated against, he feels now as though he has found a home in Dresden, in no small part because of his membership in the band.
“I feel at home,” Rashed said. “I find homeland, because I lost mine in the war.”
For Azzawi, being in a band has given him the chance to interact with people that are different than him, not only people from other Middle Eastern countries, but also Germans who support PEGIDA and Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), a far-right nationalist party that’s been compared to France’s National Front.
Thabet Azzawi plays the oud at a Banda Internationale show.
He remembers hitching a ride home after a show with a concertgoer who he later found out was a supporter of AfD. The man, he said, was shocked by Azzawi’s proficiency in German, by the fact that he had a job and paid German taxes.
“He was shocked a little bit, but then he started change his mind,” Azzawi said. “I was very happy the effect the music has — showing that we are really normal people.”
In not even two years, the band has gone from a project that focused on integration to being a true family — and not only for the members of the band who are refugees.
“The guys became very fast a part of our families because most of us have children,” Tomaszewski said, “So they were integrated, they were part of the daily life.”
And the two musicians are trying to make a life for themselves in Dresden, a city they once felt scorned in and now are working hard to improve.
“I’m very optimistic actually about this city, and I’m fighting for it,” Azzawi said. “There could be some racist people, there could be some ignorant people, but when they hear our music, when they hear us speak German, when they hear our stories, maybe they try to imagine what we have went through, then maybe they will begin to appreciate us a little bit.”