Torture, violence and asylum feel very far away for most Western people, but not Phil Muriel. As an interpreter, Phil helps to counsel individuals fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the UK. He then takes inspiration from these people and creates music which reflects their strength and enduring positivity. We were lucky enough to get the chance to interview Phil on his work and his music.

Rosie Watterson: Phil, can we start with a little about yourself? Where are you from? When did you start making music?

Phil Muriel: I was born in Paris and moved to the UK when I was eighteen years old. I have played music since the age of nine, picking up various instruments and teaching myself: recorder, harmonica, drums and guitar. I have played in many different bands, covering a variety of styles: jazz, blues, soul, folk-rock etc. I also perform as a solo artist. I have lived in the North East of England for many years and this is where I am still based.

RW: I’m really interested in your background. Your Youtube channel says that you interpret for counsellors, how did you come to having this job?

PM: From 2000 onward I became aware of the influx of French speaking asylum seekers in the region, and in 2006 I began training as an interpreter. In the following years I obtained the highest qualifications for interpreters in the UK (the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting) as well as a qualification equivalent to a MA in Translation (the Diploma in Translation). I now work as an interpreter for a Newcastle based charity, ‘Freedom from Torture’, that offers counselling to torture survivors. I also interpret and translate for a local charity based in Stockton-on-Tees called ‘Justice First’, who help destitute asylum seekers.

RW: Without breaching confidentiality, what type of people do you work with? Where are they from? I think a lot of people would struggle to believe that anyone living in the UK has experienced torture because for us it seems so far away. 

PM: The majority of my interpreting clients have fled from former French/Belgian colonies in Africa where they experienced persecution and torture. I have worked with a man who was a journalist and dared to criticise the regime. There was a woman married to a pastor who, in his sermons, condemned human rights abuses. He has now ‘disappeared’. Lots of women are considered ‘guilty by association’, for example if they served food and drink for their husband’s political meeting, or are the wife or sister of a political activist.

RW: Would you mind telling me a little bit about why these people are running from their homelands? I mean, you’ve said they’re seeking asylum from torture/ prosecution- what form does this take? 

PM: Most commonly, membership of an opposition party; political meetings are raided, participants arrested and tortured or mass arrests are made during demonstrations with a similar outcome.

One couple ran a print shop, they were caught printing leaflets, posters and tee-shirts for an opposition party. The shop was closed, the contents confiscated and the couple arrested and tortured.

There was a gynaecologist in Guinea who helped a young woman give birth. She happened to be the daughter of the opposition leader.

One Congolese woman was overheard on the bus complaining about the government by a ‘spy’. She was subsequently arrested, gang raped and tortured… It’s hard for people in the West to comprehend this kind of behaviour.

RW: It’s one thing to read about someone’s experiences, but another to hear about them in person. This must be really difficult, but do you find helping to counsel them rewarding? 

PM: Interpreting for counselling sessions with torture survivors is demanding and challenging, but working with these people is rewarding. I listen to the stories of both men and women, of all ages, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. I hear how their opposition to the regime in power resulted in their arrest, imprisonment and horrific torture. They describe how they were able to flee, most often not knowing where the people traffickers were taking them. Then the struggles they face living among us in the most deprived areas of our towns where racism and prejudice are rife.

RW: Do you feel as though your music is an outlet for the distressing things that you have heard? When you wrote “Because I smile” did you have anyone in particular in mind? 

PM: For me, music has always been a source of solace – a form of therapy. Song writing has provided me with an opportunity to air my feelings about what my clients speak about.

‘Because I smile’ was originally a poem written about one of my clients. She was a young woman from Cameroon, who was picked up in a dawn raid and, along with her 18 month old daughter, taken to a detention centre. She was subsequently deported back to the country where she had been horribly mistreated.

This lady’s dignity and ever-ready smile in spite of her mental anguish always impressed me.

Another client, who has been waiting for 8 years for the Home Office to make a decision regarding his asylum case, is also a person who always smiles pleasantly when you meet him. They were the inspiration for a poem which quickly became this song.

RW: I feel as though your song “Because I smile”  has a country/ folk theme to it, and often that style of music is about hard times. Was this intentional, or was it just a genre that felt right for you?  

PM: We recorded the song in the simplest and most direct way. We wanted an almost intimate feel. I played all the instruments and sang the vocals. It does have a slight country feel but that was not intentional.

RW: Is there any issue or charity you would like to draw to the attention of our readers? Or any events you will be performing at in the future? 

PM: The issue of immigration is a very hot topic these days! Certain sections of the press have done their best to ‘muddy the waters’ and misinform the public about asylum seekers.

I would urge your readers to inform themselves of the truth concerning asylum by visiting the following websites:

www.freedomfromtorture.org – www.refugeecouncil.org.uk or www.cityofsanctuary.co.uk

I do not have any gigs in the near future but, you might be interested in my video. I translated this French song, written by Celtic musicians Gilles Servat & Donal Lunny, about the loneliness & isolation of emigrants. I feel it relates so well to my interpreting clients who have fled persecution in their homeland to find sanctuary in the UK.

 RW: Thank you so much for your time, Phil.