ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In a tiny makeshift rehearsal studio in a residential neighborhood of Rome, Nigerian asylum seeker Sylvester Ezeala let slip a smile as he drummed a pair of claves to the mesmeric beat of African reggae.
“I love music. Music is life. It makes you relax and calms your nerves,” said Ezeala, 28, who credits music for obliterating the feelings of loneliness and loss that had brought him to the verge of suicide just a few months earlier.
Ezeala is a member of a band set up by medical charity Doctors for Human Rights (MEDU) to help migrants who experienced torture and extreme violence before fleeing to a new life.
For an increasing number of migrants arriving in Italy bear mental as well as physical scars due to abuse experienced in their country of origin or on their way to Europe, mainly in Libya, according to the Rome-based non-government organization.
MEDU coordinator Alberto Barbieri said most suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which can cause nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, guilt and isolation.
“All together these symptoms seriously impair people’s social, work, affective and interpersonal life and ... increase isolation,” said Barbieri.
Almost 600,000 migrants arrived in Italy over the past four years. Most sailed from Libya in flimsy vessels operated by people smugglers. More than 13,000 have died trying to make the crossing.
But difficulties in securing work and learning Italian led to a sense of seclusion among many new arrivals who spend most of their day in reception centers with little to do, added MEDU’s cultural mediator Abdoulaye Toure, 39.
“Often the only opportunity they have to get out is coming here to listen (and play) music,” he said.
Set up at the beginning of the year as support to clinical therapy, the MEDU Music Band meets twice a week and has performed at several private and public events, playing a mix of African pop, rap and reggae.
“Music allows (them) to be together, express emotions and feel part of something,” said Barbieri.
Ezeala is a new addition to the group, having been referred to the charity after attempting to take his own life, he said.
He fled Nigeria last year fearing arrest for backing the secession of an area in the southeast formerly known as Biafra.
His father and brother were shot dead during pro-secession protests in the southern state of Anambra in 2016, while he was beaten by security forces and hit by a stray bullet, he said.
Amnesty International last year accused Nigerian security forces of killing at least 150 Biafra separatists at peaceful rallies, which the military and police denied.
The army said at the time that the separatists, often armed, had behaved violently, killing several policeman and attacking both military and police vehicles.
“The military and other security agencies exercised maximum restraints despite the flurry of provocative and unjustifiable violence,” army spokesman Sani Usman said in a statement last year.
As Ezeala recovered, his family put him on a flight to Italy where he applied for asylum, he said.
But after spending a few months in a reception center, loneliness overwhelmed him.
“I look at myself and I was like: ‘what I am living here (for)? My father and brother are dead, my mother is far, what I can do?’... it made me want to jump and end my life,” he said.
Joining the band gave him a sense of belonging.
“They are my family now,” he said.
MEDU said about 90 percent of more than 2,000 migrants assisted by its mobile health clinic over the past three years reported being exposed to torture or extreme violence - mostly at the hands of armed groups, criminal gangs and smugglers.
“Unfortunately in Libya today ... violence and torture are practiced on industrial scale,” said Barbieri.
An overwhelming majority of African migrants who passed through Libya on the way to Italy witnessed or suffered a series of abuses including murder, rape and food deprivation, according to a study by British NGO Oxfam.
Ibrahim Jalloh, a singer from Sierra Leone in the MEDU band, said he was kidnapped and held for more than a year in Tripoli by a criminal group that demanded a ransom from his family.
He was routinely beaten and when it became clear he couldn’t get any money he was put in a separate cell with others migrants, waiting to be executed, he said.
“If you don’t pay, they kill you,” said 34-year-old Jalloh.
Knowing their fate was sealed, the group rioted when gunmen came to open the cell, he said, and he was hit in the head with the butt of a rifle, passed out and left for dead.
He woke up the next morning with many former inmates lying dead nearby and walked out of the building. He was helped by a local man in a passing car who took him to a doctor, housed him until recovery and gave him money to get on a boat to Italy.
“The trouble in Libya is that .. either you chose to die (there) or you risk to cross the Mediterranean Sea,” he said.
Toure, the cultural mediator who also plays with the group, said music was helping Jalloh and his band mates recover.
“Music has removed sadness from their faces. (Before) they would sit tense because of all they went through ... now they laugh and are happier,” he said.
Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org