With help from university, immigration attorney hopes to inspire support for refugees

Attorney writes song, produces video to tell one refugee family's experience

By Kris Olson
BridgeTower Media Newswires

BOSTON - Boston immigration attorney Susan J. Cohen doesn't consider herself a particularly religious person. But when she began composing "Beyond the Borders" just over a year ago, Cohen says she felt like "I was a vessel for this song in a spiritual way."

The video for "Beyond the Borders" recently hit the internet, just in time for World Refugee Day on June 20.

"Since 2011, six million Syrians have fled their homeland," reads the screen as the video opens. "Their voices are rarely heard, and each family's story is different and tragic. This song depicts one family's story."

The video features the diverse group of nearly three dozen students and alumni of Berklee College of Music who gravitated to the project once they learned of it.

The seeds of the song were planted when President Trump decided in early 2017 to all but halt accepting refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

"The idea that people would not be welcome in the U.S. as refugees - not just Syrian refugees - for some period of time really affected me very intensely," says Cohen, the founder and head of Mintz Levin's national immigration practice. "It felt so wrong. It felt so un-American. A proud part of our history is that we have always been a refuge for people fleeing danger."

Unable to stop thinking about the situation, Cohen says she decided to try to channel her sadness, anger and frustration into something positive.

Though she indulges her musical side only to raise money for charitable causes, Cohen did previously record a CD of songs she had written. In this case, she knew just the person who could help with her project: friend Mark Simos, an associate professor in the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music.

Knowing how much free advice Cohen had given over the years to Berklee students who could not afford an attorney, Simos says he was happy to return the favor.

"I thought it would be nice to offer some songwriting consulting, like I would offer students, just as a thank-you," he says.

When they first set to work, however, the pair had little idea what the project would become.

For the past decade, Simos has run a Songs for Social Change contest at Berklee, hoping to spur students to use their talents to address issues of importance to them. According to Simos, achieving authenticity is a particularly daunting challenge when trying to create such art, as Cohen would learn.

Simos says that students creating works for the contest have frequently found themselves asking: "Who am I to sing this song? I care about this issue, but does my voice matter? Do I have the right to write this song?"

Simos says he was able to help Cohen work through those issues by having the final verse of the song come from the perspective of a "witness" - the position Cohen has often occupied in her work as volunteer and president of the board of directors of the PAIR Project, which provides free immigration services to indigent asylum-seekers and detained immigrants.

Cohen says the refugees with whom she comes in contact are "people like you and me, very accomplished, upright people with families." The only difference is they are desperate for help.

In addition to being among the best at playing their instruments, the musicians Cohen's project attracted were performers from Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, among other countries.

"I think the students were all very moved by the material and being part of something for a good cause," Simos says.

One such musician was violinist Layth Sidiq, who was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and raised in Jordan.

"Through music, in some ways I am always representing my side of the world," he says.

Sidiq says he knew Cohen was deeply engaged with the plight of refugees and wanted to do "something powerful."

"I'm happy she chose music as the medium," he says.

Sidiq is thrilled with the finished product, which he only recently heard for the first time, given that the performances were recorded in three separate studios, two local and one in Los Angeles.

He knows one video "is not going to change everything," but that's no reason to minimize its power to humanize the plight of the refugees, he says.

Sidiq hopes one thing the video accomplishes is encouraging people to engage in dialogue with people of different backgrounds and cultures.

"Get out there and meet some people and see where it leads," he says. "You may find out you have more in common than you thought."

Simos agrees. "In its strongest form, a great song can awaken empathy in a listener," he says.

Cohen says her goal now is to get the video out to as many people as possible. Her hope is that it will inspire them to take a step they otherwise would not have taken, be it writing a check to a nonprofit working on behalf of refugees or a letter to members of Congress or the president, urging them to increase the numbers of refugees the country accepts from Syria. In the current calendar year, that number - 11 - is shockingly low, Cohen notes.

"It's almost criminal in my mind - cruel, inhumane," she says.

Published: Thu, Jun 28, 2018