Transient communities: The case of a refugee choir inthe Catholic church of Lesvos — Eirini Papanikolaou, Jennifer Sherrill & Antonis Ververis

First View – Report (published on 16 January 2024)

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Transient communities: The case of a refugee choir inthe Catholic church of Lesvos

Eirini Papanikolaou, Jennifer Sherrill & Antonis Ververis


For many refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Africa, the Greek island of Lesvos is the first point of entry into the European Union. However, due to an agreement between the European Union and Turkey declared in March of 2016, people crossing the Aegean Sea without formal travel documents would be detained on the Greek islands until their asylum applications were examined. This bureaucratic slowdown trapped refugees on Lesvos for months and years of unknown waiting. At the same time, the arrival of refugees from various African countries led to a flourishing of the small Catholic church in the capital city, Mytilene. In 2017, a parish choir was established by Congolese refugees with the purpose of providing a refuge to members who sought a sense of community, spirituality, and normality. Through interviews, participatory observation, and polyvocal ethnography, we address the following research areas: the importance of spirituality in the lives of refugees, how participation in the choir helped them to feel a sense of community, and the use of choral singing as a form of integration. More specifically, we discuss how the refugee-initiated autonomous aspect of the choir created an environment in which each member had a personal stake in developing and caring for the choir community as a whole. As a majority of the interviewees felt that singing for God was the highest purpose, participation in this choir helped members connect to their faith while also giving a much-needed sense of purpose in uncertain times.


refugee crisis, community music, choral singing, spirituality


Eirini Papanikolaou comes from the island of Lesvos, Greece. She received her bachelor’s degree in saxophone from University of Macedonia and her master’s degree in ethnomusicology and social anthropology from University of Athens. She is a professional saxophone performer and teacher. Since 2013, she been teaching music in public schools of Greece and currently serves at the Music High School of Athens where she teaches saxophone. She directed the choir at the Assumption of Mary Catholic Church, Lesvos for two years. Every Sunday, she accompanies the masses at the St. Theresia Catholic Church of Kypseli, Athens by playing the piano. []

Jennifer Sherrill holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance and pedagogy from Northern Illinois University and North Park University. She taught and performed throughout the Chicagoland area as a jazz and classical singer for over 20 years. She directed youth and community choirs and cofounded the Thousand Mile Choir, a choir premised on representing the many musical cultures of the members. Since 2017, she has worked with multiple musical NGOs on the island of Lesvos and on multiple occasions, has served as a temporary director of the choir at the Assumption of Mary Catholic Church, Lesvos. Jennifer is currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Davis. []

Antonis Ververis was born in Athens and brought up on the island of Lesvos, Greece. He studied musicology and music education at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and sociology at the University of the Aegean. In addition, he received graduate degrees from Roehampton University, UK, and Lynchburg College, USA in choral education and choral conducting, respectively. He holds a PhD from Aristotle University where he carried out research on gender stereotypes in music education. His research interests also include children’s vocal development and teaching methods of traditional Greek music. Since 2018, he has been teaching in the Department of Music Studies at the University of Ioannina, Greece. []