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The Artist Writing Pop Music About the Syrian Refugee Crisis

With her new song—written the day her family members had their refugee visas rejected by the Australian government—Wafia wants to make listeners feel less removed from the crisis in Syria.

Leila Ettachfini

Leila Ettachfini

Wafia Al-Rikabi, known to her fans as just Wafia, is focused on making music that's accessible to everyone—whether she's talking about falling in love with a girl for the first time or the Syrian refugee crisis, a topic that hits close to home. Her latest single, "Bodies," focuses specifically on the latter.

Wafia was born in the Netherlands; her mother is Syrian and her father is Iraqi. Although she and her parents now live in Australia, much of her extended family is currently trapped in Syria, where they face violence and other health risks daily, despite their efforts to flee. "Bodies," which is part of a forthcoming EP called VIII out on October 13, contrasts lyrics about the crisis with upbeat pop instrumentals, a deliberate attempt on Wafia's part to make the song's message reach audiences beyond those already concerned with the Syrian conflict. (She wrote the song on the same day her mother's family had their refugee visas rejected by the Australian government.)

Broadly spoke to Wafia about being a part of the Syrian diaspora amidst the crisis, what motivates her to create music like "Bodies," and the value of human connection as a musician.

BROADLY: How did you get into music?
Wafia: When my family moved around a lot, I used to join local choirs just to meet people. Then I went to university to study pre-med and I procrastinated by making music instead of doing my actual assignments. I put out a cover online [of Mario's "Let Me Love You"], and things just picked up from there.

Can you talk about the process of writing and creating "Bodies"?
I wanted to make a song that was fun even though it talks about something much darker. I never like it when music feels pseudo-intellectual and it becomes inaccessible in that way. I wanted to make something that, even if you couldn't relate to the words, you could enjoy it. So "Bodies" is a play on pop music in general.

How personal is this song for you?
The song is actually about my family. They live in Syria and they've been impacted, obviously, by everything going on there... But my family's refugee status was essentially denied. I saw my mom doing paperwork, taking calls, and following up for about a year. Then, in one single letter, they were denied everything. It wasn't just one of them—it was my whole family. I saw how much that broke my mom and my family.

I saw a lot of images in the media about people leaving their homes, and I just wanted to make it feel less alien. I feel like people tend to look at situations like that and feel really removed from it. I just wanted to create a song that put all of these ideas together, and "Bodies" is what happened... I talk about themes like necessity, intangibility, and transparency. That's what I'm focusing on.

What's the status of your family now?
They're still in Syria. They're all spread out through Syria. My uncle's village gets attacked quite regularly. It's quite daunting and really difficult to even talk to them because sometimes when you're talking, you can hear gunshots and bombs. I very clearly remember asking my mom if it worried her when she heard those things, and my mom said something that just terrified me: She said that she gets more worried when she can't hear them because that means they're on the move and getting closer. We're so lucky to be here [in Australia], but it's still like there's a lot of trauma that comes with that.

Does the rest of your music address topics like the Syrian refugee crisis?
I try to treat each song individually, so this topic doesn't get visited again in the EP, but I talk about my first experience loving someone that just so happens to be female, and that's something I've never talked about in my music, or ever really said out loud. "Bodies" fits into the theme of necessity, which is a theme that comes up a lot.

What are you most excited for in terms of the future?
I'm excited to get back on the road and meet people. I find that a lot of Arab kids come up to me like, It's really cool you're Arab but you don't make Arabic music. I talk to these people on Twitter and Instagram and it's really cool to see their faces. That's what I love the most: human connection and interaction afterwards, even though I'm a very socially anxious person.

Listen to "Bodies" here: