A choir of women underwent a fascinating evolution from singing for each other to performing for a large audience of other refugees in Berlin, who find solace in their mesmerising music.
After years of civil war and millions of people fleeing Syria, in a small Berlin neighbourhood lies a deep desire that one day they will return home, and it's coming from a clutch of Syrian women who have found solace in singing away their pain.
As the ladies sing, one woman stays resolute throughout. Only the avid listener can hear the wistful longing for the old days, the unwillingness to compare life in Syria to life in Berlin.
"At night sometimes I feel like my heart is tearing apart, I don't know why," she says.
But she does understand that it's about Syria, the memories of the streets of Damascus, the smells that wafted through the air of her old town, her old neighbours.
For a while after the start of the civil war in Syria, Raja Banout didn't wander far. She first moved to Dubai, then to Turkey, in the hope that the strife would end soon and she could return.
But that was not to be.
Raja is the founder of the Haneen, a choir of Syrian women, who fled their home and now live in Berlin. In English, 'Haneen' means nostalgia.
"In Syria, we always wanted to go to doctors who graduated in Germany and wanted everything that was imported, in Berlin, we want everything Syrian," says Raja. Just as she finishes, she looks up and into the distance.
Haneen, started as a forum in the Turkish city of Gaziantep in 2015. It described itself as:
"The Forum, is a group of forcibly displaced Syrian women, who have decided to face the pain and suffering of war with intellectual and cultural empowerment. The project aims to provide its participants with support as well as preserve the traditional Syrian song heritage..... The project helps to connect its members with their homeland, while in exile, with the hope that this bond will create a safe space."
And it does just that.
As part of her choir, nearly a hundred women have come and gone, but a solid fifteen hang around. Among them there is a woman whose husband disappeared in Syria, no one knows where he is, and another whose son was tortured to death by the Assad regime.
Harrowing stories if you have the guts.
Raja didn't have to do this, she didn't mean to set up a forum for women of war. With no homeland herself, she was simply eager to become a champion for others.
In doing so, she became an accidental icon of empowerment for Syrian women.
"In Syria, they say that when women reach the age of 50, she should just sit at home and not do anything," she says at 63. "I wanted to change that, why not do anything? I am also a person, I want to do things, why just sit at home. So I would always say to people let's get together, eat good food, laugh, sing and even start businesses," she hopes.
The Haneen choir came to Berlin from Gaziantep in 2016, and along came a few of its former members.
Gatherings were small initially, Syrians, along with other refugees were still arriving in Germany in 2016, it took them all a while to settle down before the choir started to spread its wings again.
The choir meets once a week to practice at a cultural exchange centre in Berlin – providing much needed respite for mothers, grandmothers, daughters and sisters. They sing songs which remind them of the good times, generally old Syrian songs, one of the choir's favourites translates as 'We will return to Syria one day'.
It's not Raja's favourite. “You can only cry so much" she says.
But as soon as the choir found its voice, a new, almost inevitable, dynamic emerged. The choir took a shape of a counselling group.
"I wanted the women not to feel weak, I wanted to make them feel home, to make them feel secure that they are not alone," says Raja.
During her time in Gaziantep, Raja recalls, the choir came together to provide essential monetary help and all-round support to one lady whose daughter was getting married.
“Here, everyone is now well settled, but when someone is sick, we go and visit them, or when someone has a baby, we visit with gifts," says Raja.
Laura Hassan, 27, joined the choir just two months ago. She says: "I remember the first day I came, I met two of the choir ladies, they immediately started to care and ask me if I wanted anything or if I was comfortable, you can really feel the sense of community in the choir.
“Although the age difference is quite a lot but you feel like it's your own family after some time. Everyone is caring. I may feel more connected to the ones who are close to my age because I think we have more to talk about but at the same time, I share a lot with all the women in the choir."
'My Flowers are Blossoming'
Raja is a vocal opponent of Bashar al Assad's regime, a political and social activist in Syria, after years of political opposition to Assad came to no end, she says she took a very 'conscious decision' to move away from her country.
It was this sentiment which motivated her to connect with the Syrian diaspora in Berlin.
But as Haneen gained popularity, there were calls for it to grow, and for that it needed money. Raja knocked on as many doors as she could, reaching out to cultural foundations, European groups, and even the German government.
Then she decided to set up the Neswa charitable foundation, for girls and women, to help fund the choir. Up until a few month ago, Raja had problems paying musicians for the weekly practice sessions.
However, after much toil and perseverance, and through the alchemy of bureaucratic workings Neswa, the charity, will be funding Haneen.
The choir will be playing its first major concert this year on International Women's Day on March 8 – which has recently been declared a public holiday by the Berlin state government.
"You should come, it will be great, we've made it home here," she says.
But home is where the heart is – and Raja's heart is split across the Middle East.
Her husband lives and works in Dubai and visits often, but Raja also has her three daughters in Berlin, who keep her company and three grandchildren who keep her busy.
She fondly talks about home, the one in Damascus, and how her neighbours keep her updated on life there.
"My flowers are still blossoming," she says proudly, referring to the flower bed outside her house in Damascus.
Her old neighbours continue to water the plants Raja left behind.
She's made something of a life in Berlin, or as she calls it, “the next best option”.
In the community here, she takes her solace, as they too, take their peace.
"Sometimes we sing with tears in our eyes," Raja says.