Set Me Free was commissioned by SING NSW in 2005 as part of the acclaimed song cycle conceived by Paul, ‘Young Australians – Voices of Achievement’. With the support of artistic director, Jenny Gregory, world music icons Sirocco, and a team of fine musicians including Jonathan Swartz on double bass, the music was recorded over one week at ABC studios with a massed choir made up of hundreds of children from across NSW. The album and concert series were a stand out success and the pieces have become Australian Choral Classics.
Set Me Free is dedicated to a young Afghan refugee, Salima Haidary. Salima was born in Ghazni near Kabul, Afghanistan in December 1998. After suffering years of perpetual abuse under the Taliban regime, Salima’s family embarked on a desperate mission, to flee their homeland and escape to Australia. Salima put her experience into words in November 2003, and the remarkable story became the winner of the National Literary Award for youth the following year.
For most of her life, Salima had lived in fear, without any sense of freedom or rights. She witnessed the brutal murder of both her two younger brothers by Taliban soldiers and had not seen or heard from her father in over five years after he had been captured by soldiers and possibly escaped to Pakistan. In desperation, Salima’s grandfather gave her mother his life savings and demanded that the surviving family leave Afghanistan immediately. Under darkness they journeyed to Pakistan and paid US$4,000.00 each to organize an attempt to reach Australia. They traveled overland to Karachi in the South and then flew to Indonesia, waiting weeks for a promised boat. With more than 300 people crammed in the tiny vessel, the four-day voyage cost many lives. Upon arrival at Christmas Island, the family was jailed for three months and Salima feared the worst.
Finally, Salima, her mother and sisters were given a home in a small suburb of Canberra. Then, without warning her father miraculously appeared, and the family reunited for the first time in nearly a decade. When Paul Jarman wrote the lyrics to ‘Set Me Free’ Salima was still waiting to hear from the government regarding their right to stay in Australia. She said that she would kill herself if deported back to Afghanistan. Ironically a couple of days after the piece was written, Salima was given her freedom.
This piece is dedicated to Salima, her family and for all refugees escaping persecution.
Audio Sample courtesy of ABC Classics and SING NSW