Audrey Assad performs a concert for the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto June 23. The American singer of Syrian heritage has become a strong advocate for refugees. Photo by Jean Ko Din

ISIS slaughter turns singer’s focus to refugees

By 
  • July 22, 2016

It was February 2015 and American singer-songwriter Audrey Assad was working with fellow Catholic artist Matt Maher on his new album. She was sitting in Maher’s backyard when she came across the shocking video online. Twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christian men were about to be beheaded by the Islamic State on a Libyan beach.

Assad watched in horror as the men whispered prayers in Arabic.

“I watched most of the video and I was horrified,” Assad told The Catholic Register. “I just remember feeling this overwhelming emotion and this need to make something good out of that feeling.”

As a daughter of a Syrian refugee, Assad always felt she carried “a spiritual and emotional burden for Syria and her people.”

The rising violence in the Middle East and the growing number of people displaced from their homelands due to the war in Syria and the proliferation of the Islamic State there and in Iraq has kept her up at night. But watching the execution of Christian men became the trigger that inspired her to raise her voice.

“I would often lie awake at night thinking about Syrian mothers and children, just unable to move my thoughts from them. It really has disrupted my life in the best way. I feel unable to move on and I hope it’ll drive me to greater advocacy for them.”

Immediately, she and Maher took to the spiritual outlet that they know — their music. That same day, the two began to write the first single for Assad’s highly acclaimed album, Inheritance.

Assad calls her music “soundtracks for prayer.” The single “Even Unto Death” was her attempt to adopt the prayers of the men on the beach and all of today’s martyrs.

“I was sort of putting myself in a place where I tried to pray what they were praying,” she said. “What occurred to me was we don’t just need to pray for Middle Eastern people under duress... We need to pray in solidarity with them.”

“Even Unto Death” was released as the preview song on iTunes when users pre-ordered the album before its February release. It quickly earned the album early acclaim from critics. In its debut week, the song propelled the album to No. 1 on the iTunes Christian/Gospel charts in Canada and the United States.

“With everything I’m doing right now, I’m putting quite a lot of focus on refugee issues,” said Assad. “Everything I’m doing right now is serving to raise awareness and inspire people to advocacy for Syrian people or for refugees of any type.”

In May, Assad wrote a piece for the We Are Refugees Movement web site in anticipation of World Refugee Day on June 20. She wrote about how her Syrian father, with his mother and two siblings, overcame hardships to resettle in the United States.

“They lived very meagrely and were essentially homeless for several years,” she wrote. “(They were) living in what amounted to a large janitorial closet at a local Christian Missionary Alliance Church... They stayed together, and they found a way to make it work.”

Assad said she has always been connected to her heritage. When she was young, her father and her grandmother told her stories of when they had nothing but worked hard to make their way in the world.

She always admired her father’s entrepreneurial work ethic. His motto is “Dream, believe, do, repeat.”

“It’s four words that really sum up the way he has approached life in America and it’s the way that I think I have always approached it by watching him,” she said.

“I’ve learned to imagine big things, to believe that they are doable and to do them over and over... I just think it’s a relentless optimism.”

Assad has harnessed her fourth album as a way of leaning into her heritage more publicly. She hopes to use her audience and her outlet to give the refugee crisis a more human face.

On June 23, Assad celebrated the week after World Refugee Day with a charity concert for the Office of Refugees Archdiocese of Toronto (ORAT). She said that in working with ORAT and the Office of Catholic Youth, it has given her hope.

“In the U.S., it’s a little bit more of a hot button issue. I would say that many churches are not really sure what to do with refugees right now,” she said. “And so, I’m really grateful to be here in Toronto doing this because it’s really encouraging to see the receptiveness here.”

Assad hopes to take the hopefulness she found in the Canadian advocacy for refugees and use it as fuel to raise awareness in her own country. She is currently partnered with the We Are Refugees Movement to empower the Church to be agents of hope and compassion to support refugees.

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