Audrey Assad serves as a musician and an advocate for refugees

Audrey Assad sings during a 2017 recording session in Nashville. This month she released "Pearls," a cover of Sade's song from "Love Deluxe." It was her first studio release in nearly two years. (Courtesy of Hoganson Media Relations)

Audrey Assad sings during a 2017 recording session in Nashville. This month she released "Pearls," a cover of Sade's song from "Love Deluxe." It was her first studio release in nearly two years. (Courtesy of Hoganson Media Relations)

by Kristen Whitney Daniels

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If you were to stumble onto Catholic musician Audrey Assad's "About me" section on her website, you might expect to see her many accolades listed first.

Perhaps that her first solo album was named iTunes' Christian Breakthrough Album of the Year in 2010. Or that she's one half of the duo that makes up electronic pop band LEVV, whose debut EP "Strange Fire" peaked at No. 17 on the iTunes Alternative charts. Maybe you'd expect her to tout the famed Christian artists she's toured with, such as Tenth Avenue North, Jars of Clay, and her often co-collaborator Matt Maher.

Instead she lists "daughter of a Syrian refugee."

The description serves as a poignant reminder that when international attention turned to refugees fleeing the Syrian war, it was personal.

"It has been, perhaps, the single most life-changing world event for me, in my little world, in my existence, because you know obviously, I have blood ties there," Assad told NCR.

In a video released by Blaine Hogan, creative director at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, earlier this year, Assad details her father Riad Assad's plight from Syria. Riad Assad was born in Damascus, Syria. His mother's divorce from an alcoholic father left the family homeless and eventually compelled his mother, siblings and him to leave for Lebanon.

Audrey Assad, a Catholic musician, uses her voice to bring awareness to the plight of Syrian refugees. Assad's father was a Syrian refugee in the 1970s. (NCR/Kristen Whitney Daniels)

"Riad's mother, a single woman in poverty, could not protect her children from danger at home while remaining in the Middle East," the video states. Eventually, the family obtained refugee status in the 1970s and moved to the United States.

Riad Assad, who goes by Roy, is now a U.S. citizen. Since moving to the U.S., he's become a motivational speaker who runs his own life-coaching company.

Audrey Assad, who has never been to Syria because of her father's refugee status, said she hadn't paid much attention to the country prior to the outbreak of the war. "I wish I had [paid attention] before but I just thought of Syria as this beautiful paradise somewhere far away," Assad said.

Music with a message

Since then, Assad said she has used her platform as a musician "for the deliverance and aid of the Syrian population." In an essay titled "Dream, Believe, Do, Repeat." on the website We Welcome Refugees, she introduces her family and documents her family's struggles and triumphs in the U.S.

"I began writing this piece about my father, but I ended up writing it about all of us — my father, my grandmother, and myself. We're a people of ideals because we've had to be, but I believe this contributed to whatever it is that makes America truly great," Assad wrote.

Their similarities go beyond their work ethic.

"My father is delicately featured except for his strident, sizable nose, which my own nose resembles. He's fair-skinned, with an olive complexion, and his hair is wavy and dark. When I see photographs of him as a young man, I do a double take, because he and I truly look so much alike," she wrote.

When speaking to NCR, she noted that the inheritance of her father's appearance has allowed her to pass as a non-Arab for most of her life, stating that she "grew not experiencing a lot of racism because I'm white skinned."

Assad, who boasts a strong following on social media platforms, started utilizing the space to talk about her heritage and the refugee crisis. Subsequent reactions haven't always been pleasant, including from the Christian community to which she has dedicated her voice and time.

Although Assad does see moments of hope in the "many" Christian people working for peaceful American-Arab relations, there have been moments where she says she has "had to pinch myself."

"It's hard to believe some of the things that prominent Christian leaders are saying — it made me realize that they've felt this way about Arabs and Muslims all along, but they've been emboldened to speak more openly by recent political shifts," Assad said.

She says she wasn't shocked by the laws targeting Muslims and refugees, specifically President Donald Trump's Jan. 27 executive order suspending the admittance of refugees from seven predominately Muslim countries, Syria being one of them. After judicial challenges, the executive order was reworded and a new one was issued March 6. Syrians were still barred and the executive order still faces legal woes.

"I was definitely saddened, and moved to act. In my opinion the executive orders are stoking the rising flames of xenophobia in our country, which benefits no one, and which certainly does nothing to discourage radicalization," Assad said.

Despite the negative responses from some, the executive order has largely emboldened Assad to become more outspoken and work for change. This includes Assad volunteering at resettlement agencies in her home base of Nashville, Tennessee, where she lives with her filmmaker husband William Price III and toddler-aged son, when she isn't touring.

Catholic musicians Audrey Assad and Matt Maher lead praise and worship Dec. 29, 2016 at the OneThing Conference for young adults. (NCR/Kristen Whitney Daniels)

She helps pack toiletry bags for refugee moms, drives refugees around the area to get them acquainted with their new home, and participates in discussions about American-Arab relations.

Assad says her experience with actual refugees "has only solidified my commitment to advocacy and peace work." Having been befriended by some of the Syrian refugees in her area, she now shares meals, stories and even parties with them.

"I have been so blessed by it. To hear them speak of their trials, you would imagine they'd be bitter —and honestly, they have every right to be — but instead they are grateful to be alive and starting again," Assad said.

She "hates" having to continually explain that Syrians and refugees of other nationalities are "just like us."

"They have daydreams, families, ambitions, business goals, and books they like to read over and over. We truly do not need to fear Arabs because they are Arabs, or be scared to integrate refugees into our communities because of what they have been through, or because of the color of their skin," she said.

It is her hope that she can use her position as both an American and a Syrian to "creatively serve their unification." It's also her hope that the Christian community will begin to see the refugee crisis and rise of xenophobia as a "perfect opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus."

But she's also realistic.  

"I have had to come to grips with the fact that a lot of people don't feel the same way I do about the situation and it's made my music … very focused on preferring the poor and uplifting the poor and serving the refugee and looking at them as if you were seeing Christ," Assad said.

You don't have to look far into Assad's music catalogue to see that message permeate into the lyrics, message and sounds.

"Inheritance," Assad's latest album released in 2016, mostly features reimagined hymns, familiar to most Catholics and Protestants. The album, which largely leaves the melodies of the hymns untouched, reinvigorates the hymns by drawing away from the organ and turning to drums, guitars, harps and strings — instruments not necessarily reserved for the choir lofts. This is not to mention the welcome addition of Assad's crisp voice and lush accompanying harmonies.

Towards the end of the album, sandwiched between two tunes from the 19th century, sits an original song Assad wrote for the album.

Nothing about the song gives away its modern origin, not the title — "Even Unto Death" — nor the lyrics or melody. Yet the song stems directly from Assad's emotional pain over the events happening in Syria.

In Hogan's video, she details how the song was born after viewing a video the Islamic State released of the execution of 21 Coptic Christian men on a beach in February 2015. "I wanted to pray with them, not just for them," she says.

With the repetitive lyrics centered on redemptive love and sacrifice, the song becomes a lyrical meditation for the martyred.

Lifting up those 'often overlooked'

One of her latest ventures is The Beatitudes Project, a decadelong project of Christian recording artist Stuart "Stu G" Garrard, and his desire to push a "reset button in a world plagued with violence and division," according to a press release.

In addition to an accompanying book and documentary film is an album with songs focusing on the words found in Matthew 5, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. In the album, which officially releases April 21, you'll find Assad lending her voice to "Oh Mercy," along with Maher. According to a press release detailing The Beatitudes Project, the song "reflects on the ache for justice and wholeness; the wrestle with addiction and the longing for Global and Communal wrongs to be made right. It's a plea for mercy, but also a broader vision of what 'hunger and thirst' look like in 21st Century life."

Related: Exclusive: World premiere of Matt Maher and Audrey Assad's 'Oh Mercy' music video (April 6, 2017)

Assad also has her own track on the album lending her voice and heritage to "I Will Be Your Home," a song she co-wrote with Stu G. From the very opening note of the song, the mix of percussion instantly reveals the Middle Eastern influence and hints at the message to come. In the song she is accompanied by Hassan Al Zoubi, a Syrian refugee.

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Lyrics and artwork for Audrey Assad’s song "I Will Be Your Home." Artwork is by Jimmy Abegg and Cory Basil. (Courtesy of Hoganson Media Relations)

"I love this project because it really does lift up those who are often overlooked and I think it's going to be a great way to use art for that purpose," Assad said.

Assad and Seth Jones, an old friend who makes up the other half of LEVV, released their single "Collateral Damage" — an electric pop dance tune far from her usual praise and worship tunes — this past February and expects the band to release more material in the coming year. She's begun writing for a new solo album. She also hopes to write a book this year.

As if that's not enough to keep her busy, she also keeps a heavy touring schedule — she's already completed one tour this year with Andrew Peterson and will be back on the road starting at the end of April.

In the future, she does foresee herself transitioning to more projects that take her off the road.

"I don't have a great relationship with the road and I have a son now that is two and a half. So it's kind of, it's a great moment for me. I'm transitioning more into making more things and making more music and more art," she said.

For now Assad plans to continue balancing her role as a musician and advocate, a role she "hopes and prays" that she will always be invested in. And with that role, she says she will continue to publically "wrestle" with issues that Catholic America might not expect.

"I do it publicly because I feel I need to shatter this idea that because I'm an artist, I'm supposed to be your pastor. I'm not. I'm just out here living my life and expressing through music the deep battle that I fight interiorly, just like everyone else would be," she said.

"I love what I do and if I want to contend with that publicly, then so be it. And I do, and I accept whatever flack I get, it's fine."

[Kristen Whitney Daniels is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter: @KWhitneyDaniels.]

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