‘We're bonded like sisters': the choir giving trafficked women a voice
A choral singing project is harnessing the power of music to help heal the mental and emotional scars of women trafficked into Britain
In a large, festively decorated church just off London’s bustling Piccadilly Circus, a women’s choir prepares to sing in front of a lively, 400-strong crowd.
Their first song quietens the room and acts as an introduction. “We are Amie, beautiful and strong,” they sing a cappella, their floral headdresses complementing the reds, golds and greens of the Christmas trees behind them.
Each woman’s journey to this spot in the West End has been a long one.
The members of Amies Freedom Choir are all survivors of modern slavery, trafficked into the UK from the Caribbean, Africa, eastern Europe or south-east Asia. They are just some of the thousands of women brought to the UK to be forced into domestic labour or prostitution – a problem that continues to grow, according to a Salvation Army report that states there has been a 21% increase in the number of trafficking victims seeking support in 2019.
For the singers whose voices fill the vast church on a cold December evening, joining Amies – French for “female friends” – marked the end of one journey but the start of another.
Aside from physical injuries and the practical concerns of navigating the complex British immigration system, those who escape modern slavery often suffer from mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
“When they join they have difficulty standing up and saying their name out loud … they are terrified to do that,’’ says the conductor and project director, Adwoa Dickson.
The first thing they practise is saying their name to the group.
“They learn to say: ‘I am here, I am proud, and I own this space,’” says Dickson.
Alongside fellow co-founder Annabel Rook, Dickson started the project in 2010 as a weekly drama workshop to help rebuild the confidence of female survivors of human trafficking referred to them by frontline charities. They soon found that singing had a “previously unseen” effect on the women, and decided to set up a dedicated group.
Dickson says she can often see the effects of trauma in the physicality of new members.
In a case study of one new recruit, Dickson wrote that when the woman was not singing, she would “sit on her chair holding her arms around herself, self-soothing by rocking back and forth”.
Using her voice effected a dramatic change, though, reported Dickson. “The moment she engaged in vocalising musically, she became a different person.”
The choir starts by playing group games, before moving on to rehearsals and eventually – for those who wish – performances. The “alumni choir”, made up of women who wanted to stay on after an initial year following their referral to Amies, has gone on to perform for the Desmond Tutu Foundation, Sadiq Khan at City Hall and, most recently, the packed Christmas service at St James’s in Piccadilly organised by Amos Trust – a highlight, says Dickson.
“It’s changed me,’’ says Racheal Olawaniotogun, a soprano in the choir. “From my past experience to where I am today, words cannot describe it.”