For Children in War Zones, Strains of Happiness and Hope

By Nora Boustany
Friday, February 17, 2006

Music can have a magical effect on children accustomed to the rumble of artillery fire, the dispiriting drone of warplanes and the life-threatening bark of the enemy.

For the past six years, Liz Shropshire , the founder and director of the Shropshire Music Foundation, has devoted her life to teaching children in war zones to sing and play instruments as a way to bring them out of their trauma.

"I always felt music was a selfish thing," she said. "I loved writing music, and I always felt so guilty I enjoyed it so much. I never thought I could use music to help people on this scale or witness the power of music changing lives."

Keith Porter , who had made an award-winning radio program about Shropshire, has watched her in action in Kosovo many times.

"Scores of kids come running from the converted cargo containers shouting, 'Liza! Liza!' as soon as they see Liz's jeep pull in," said Porter, director of communication for the Stanley Foundation, a peace and security research organization based in Iowa. "There is no doubt that this is the highlight of their week. Nothing in their lives is for them except this class."

Squealing knots of children swarm around Shropshire not only in Gjakova, Kosovo, where the trained composer and musician began her project, but also in Northern Ireland and Uganda.

One day in 1999, Shropshire, 45, who was living in Los Angeles, heard a report on National Public Radio about families in Kosovo uprooted and separated during the war in the Balkans.

She contacted Volunteers For Peace and Balkan Sunflowers, nonprofit organizations active in organizing relief volunteers to assist in the Balkans, and asked to enlist. She paid her own travel expenses as well as room and board for what she thought would be a basic relief mission tending to children and helping carry water.

Before she left, a neighbor suggested that Shropshire take some kind of music program with her. Using donations and what was left in her savings account, Shropshire went shopping for instruments to take with her. She also asked manufacturers to contribute to the effort.

With 140 harmonicas, 130 tin whistles, 50 pairs of drumsticks, four electric keyboards, 60 piano books for beginners, 500 pencils, a portable stereo and a tape recorder stuffed into eight duffle bags, she left for Kosovo on a U.N. World Food Program flight.

"From the plane, I could see the houses burning. I was scared, but I also felt it was so important that it did not really matter," recalled Shropshire.

She set up her project in the town of Gjakova. "That town had seen more killing, more rapes, more men gone missing than anywhere else. It was absolutely atrocious. After just two days in Gjakova, it felt so right to be there, more right than anything I had ever done in my life," she said last week during a brief stay in Washington.

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