Note worthy: one man's quest to help heal refugees through music

A Rose Bay-based musical instrument recycling scheme offers more than simply the opportunity for song and sound, writes Lara Picone 

It’s rare to meet a person whose sole intent is to help others. But the singular focus of Philip Feinstein’s life is helping refugees rebuild theirs. He does this by way of guitars, violins, and anything that can be turned into an impromptu drum, because for Philip, music is the mortar that keeps people from crumbling.

It’s all part of Feinstein’s ongoing quest to gently stitch back together the torn self-esteem of refugees who have not only suffered under regimes of terror in their home countries, but the bureaucratic ambivalence of detention centres.

To Feinstein, who arrived in Australia after fleeing Apartheid-era South Africa in 1972, self-esteem is paramount: “Once a person has high self-esteem, it becomes easier for them to deal with issues in life.”

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Feinstein’s awareness of the importance of self-worth came about after he completed a program to quit smoking. While he managed to kick the habit, the program also had an unexpected side effect; his long-time stutter all but disappeared. “I thought it was a coincidence, but later I realised it was because I’d gained huge confidence in myself,” he tells.

This epiphany set him on a path to help others overcome the debilitating fallout from a lack of self-esteem. So in 2009, he contacted Serco, the authority that runs detention centres including Villawood Detention Centre, and began volunteering as a regular music teacher.

When he arrived to teach his first class, he was surprised to find there were no instruments to play. That didn’t deter him. Rather, he began a donation drive for unwanted instruments, which soon became the not-for-profit charity, Music For Refugees.

Since then, Feinstein, who lives in Rose Bay, estimates more than 800 instruments have found their way into the hands of refugees. While guitars are the most commonly donated, Music For Refugees also receives percussion instruments and a fair few violins. Feinstein has even managed to take surplus instruments to east Africa to assist Burundian refugees in Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda.

At least 300 of instruments donated during this time arrived via the generosity of the people of the East. “The residents of the Eastern Suburbs have been magnificent,” he says. “Maybe it’s because they’re empathetic and sympathetic to the cause of refugees. Many are refugees themselves or their parents were refugees.”

Through music people begin to open up, share their stories, reconnect with their culture and find that all-important self-confidence. “Many of the refugees have found music to be very uplifting; it helps them in their life enormously. Some have told me how music keeps their life on track and how their children are also getting involved in music.”

A handful have gone on to form bands, but for many, simply mastering a few bars of a song is the first small but critical step in rebuilding a life.

To donate any unwanted musical instruments, please contact Feinstein at Music for Refugees;