Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars Sing Message of Hope in America

Musician Ashade Pearce plays songs about being a refugee in West Africa, and he has a message for U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Not all refugees are bad,” the guitarist with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars said before a recent performance in a New York City suburb. “You should not judge everybody the same.

“The righteous should not suffer for the wicked,” the 60-year-old artist, his graying dreadlocks reaching below his waist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, a band with beginnings in refugee camps in Guinea during their country’s civil war, are touring the United States, where they hope their stories and music might help ease tensions over refugees and immigrants.

Within days of taking office in January, Trump pushed refugee issues to the top of his agenda, issuing an executive order blocking immigrants from seven largely Muslim nations, suspending all refugees for 120 days and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely.

The move, which he said was necessary to protect the United States from attacks by Islamist militants, prompted widespread protests in U.S. cities. People trying to enter the country were detained at airports or barred from boarding flights.

The order has been on hold since a federal judge barred its enforcement, but the president is expected to issue a new, revised directive this week.

‘I think music could help’

The Refugee All Stars, with four albums to their name, are playing shows on intimate stages along the U.S. East Coast. They are scheduled to play in London in April.

“I think music could help,” said Reuben Koroma, the band’s lead singer. “Sometimes when people learn about our story, it gives them hope. They will say, ‘Look, those guys were refugees. Now look at them.’ ”

The band’s founding members lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, but were forced to flee to neighboring Guinea in the civil war that engulfed their homeland for more than a decade, beginning in 1991.

With a pair of donated old guitars and a rudimentary sound system, they began entertaining other refugees in the camps. Two American filmmakers followed them, releasing a documentary, “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars,” in 2005.

Back home in Freetown, the band recorded its first album, “Living Like a Refugee,” released in 2006. One of their songs appeared on the soundtrack of the movie “Blood Diamond.”

These days, however, the world is different and far more difficult for refugees, said Koroma, 52.

Militant attacks in Western Europe have stoked fear of outsiders, leaving refugees to pay the price, he said.

“One rotten fish in a container can spoil the whole lot, can make the entire fish smell. This is what has happened,” he said.

Staying on the road

The band was touring in United States in 2014 when Ebola in Sierra Leone kept them from returning home. They have not been back since and for the most part stay on the road, performing.

Their music is upbeat and cheerful, and the rhythms quickly move audiences to tap their feet and dance. Colorful lyrics, at times funny, recount woes from sleeping in stifling tarpaulin tents to losing desperately needed supplies to thieves.

“We are like a model to refugees, and we are also like spokesmen for refugees because we need to tell the people how it feels,” said Koroma.

America’s politics of rejecting refugees, he added, is frightening.

“The American people are people who really are always there to rescue people who are suffering,” he said. “That’s the value that makes America a nation that is different.

“We just pray that things will calm down. We will play music and tell people about peace,” he said.

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