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Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars give back 

Offering hope to the hopeless

One could only imagine that being hopeful in a war-torn country isn't easy. But if there's one thing that Reuben Koroma, frontman of Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars, possessed during his time in refugee camps — he lived in several in Guinea from 1997-2005 — it was the feeling that something good would come out of the dreadful situation. Hailing from Free Town, Sierra Leone, a country plagued by an 11-year Civil War (1991-2002), Koroma found his hope through music.

In Guinea refugee camps, he met others who shared his love for music. Though they didn't have access to conventional instruments, they made use of everyday items, like containers, which they played and used to construct songs that were as therapeutic as they were entertaining for themselves and for onlookers. They also made use of the best instrument they had at that time, their voices.

After a Canadian relief agency donated the group some instruments, Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars were born. Though they now have conventional Western instruments, the group also uses more traditional African instruments to showcase their culture's rich soundscapes.

The group caught the attention of American filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White, who produced the gripping 2005 documentary, The Refugee All Stars. The documentary, which has won more than 10 awards — including the Grand Jury Prize for "Best Documentary" at the AFI Film Festival in 2005 — helped the group to gain international acclaim. It also led to the band's 2006 debut album, Living Like A Refugee, along with three more to follow, including the band's latest, 2014's Libation. With four albums under their belt, SLRAS are also some of the most well traveled musicians out of West Africa. In the past 10 years, they've done extensive world-wide touring and they'll perform in Charlotte at Neighborhood Theatre on April 14.

Koroma is still surprised by the documentary's success, which in turn led to SLRAS spotlights from celebrities like Sir Paul McCartney and Angelina Jolie and appearances on TV, including a stint on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

"We just did that [star in the documentary] to just exhibit our talent," says Koroma. "I was not thinking that this would all happen. I was just thinking to share my music. I didn't think it would come to me becoming an international musician."

The band, which has returned to Sierra Leone on and off since 2005, recently wrote a song called "World Peace" British Red Cross' The Long Road, an EP released in February to raise money for British Red Cross refugee services in the United Kingdom.

The album, which features global artists, including the renowned Robert Plant, features tracks that were all inspired by the plight of refugees. Though the violence in his West African coastal home has since ceased, Koroma still considers himself a refugee because of another plague.

"I consider myself a refugee right now because of Ebola. I couldn't go back," says Koroma, who currently resides in Providence, Rhode Island. His wife and four children are back in Sierra Leone, which has since improved but still struggles conditions related to the epidemic.

Keeping his homeland in his thoughts, Koroma seeks to give back rather than ride out on his success. Visits to Europe, where bicycles are a major form of transportation, inspired him to launch Bicycles for Clean Air, a solo project that's aimed at collecting bikes that he plans to ship back to Sierra Leone, where they aren't readily available.

"In Europe, people ride bikes a lot and I tried to ask them why and the reasons they gave me, to keep the environment healthy, was a very good reason," says Koroma, who is 52-years-old. "I bought a bike in Europe and I started riding the bike there and I saw that I picked it up in a week and I saw that I was dropping pounds. I thought that it could be helpful to fight obesity, too."

Currently on tour with SLRAS, Koroma rides his bike when he has the chance. But, more importantly, he strives to get the wheels of hope moving in listeners' — especially those who are refugees — heads.

"When we talk to them, we always tell them they should have hope. And then, our story gives hope because we set a good example. We hope to inspire them to work hard," says Koroma, who goes on to place extra emphasis on hard work and abiding by laws.

"When you go to Rome, you have to do as the Romans do. If you are fortunate to be in any country that is hosting you as a refugee, that's the first thing that you should do, you should abide by the laws of that country," he says. "You have to stay focused and you have to be doing something. Being a refugee doesn't mean that you should not try to change your life and you have to work hard to change your life."

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