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Syrian Country Band Criticizes Trump's Travel Ban In New Song

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a country music band in Istanbul made up of Americans and Syrians. And instead of Johnny Cash and "I Walk The Line," what's inspiring them now is the travel ban President Trump has ordered for people from seven mostly Muslim countries. Reporter Dalia Mortada caught up with them and has this.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUNTRY FOR SYRIA SONG, "IN THE STATES")

DALIA MORTADA, BYLINE: This is the sound of the band Country for Syria, a folksy band fuses country songs with tunes from the Middle East. The founders of the 10-piece ensemble are American Owen Harris and Syrian Bashar Balleh. Harris explains.

OWEN HARRIS: It wasn't our intention to start a country and Arabic music band. And we had a gig. And we didn't prepare enough music for it. We ran out. And so I just threw some chords to some country songs at him. And he played them. And I sang them. And then he threw some chords to some Arabic songs at me. And it actually worked out pretty well.

MORTADA: I talked to them near a domed brick building they used as a backdrop for their video. They say the song is a message for President Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE STATES")

COUNTRY FOR SYRIA: (Singing) Dear Mr. President, it's too late for writing. Already your orders tore families apart. From silent lips, we'll cry no more. We'll breathe free on other shores.

MORTADA: For Syrian guitarist Balleh especially, Trump's executive order gets personal. In January, he got married to his wife, Kathryn, who's from Boise, Idaho. They met at a Country for Syria concert last year in Istanbul, where Kathryn works as an English teacher. The couple planned to apply for Balleh's immigrant visa. But now, they're not sure what to do.

BASHAR BALLEH: First plan was going to the states. B plan was going to Syria. But A and B is cancelled now (laughter).

KATHRYN BALLEH: Plan C may be Canada if they'll accept us. Plan D might be stay in Turkey for longer than we had hoped.

MORTADA: The band's been together for over a year. They don't have an album yet. But they play at bars and clubs, and did a short tour in the U.S. in October. Balleh remembers being stopped at the entrance of a grocery store in rural Pennsylvania.

B. BALLEH: Then they, like, told me that you can't get - go inside there with your backpack. There was like - kind of everyone has his backpack. But because I was - I don't know. Am I darker than you?

K. BALLEH: Not really, no.

B. BALLEH: Anyway, they thought I'm different. So they told me this.

MORTADA: So when they came back, the band wrote the first version of their song called "In The States" as a way to process their trip.

B. BALLEH: After the executive order that came from Mr. Donald Trump, we decided to change the lyrics so it can be, like, describing our feelings about how he hurt us, like, all of us, not just me as a Syrian, also like Owen. He's American. He also, like, he was hurt. And I felt how Owen was like feeling bad and ashamed.

MORTADA: Trump says his order is needed for security. Balleh's lyrics in Arabic say that Americans have nothing to fear from people like him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE STATES")

COUNTRY FOR SYRIA: (Singing in foreign language).

B. BALLEH: I try to show, like, I'm not a person who's, like, looking to steal your country. This is not a thing I'm looking for.

MORTADA: Balleh is saying that all he wants from America is to be with his wife and play music he thinks belongs there.

B. BALLEH: The states were I think a lot more because, you know, like, Country for Syria, like, it's more about country music. So we are aiming more about the states.

MORTADA: But for now, they'll stick to performing in Istanbul and other parts of Europe. For NPR News, I'm Dalia Mortada in Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE STATES")

COUNTRY FOR SYRIA: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.