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Blind Liberians Sang to Survive, Now Sing in America to Help Their Homeland

Audiences in the American Northwest are jumping to their feet and swaying to the rhythms of six blind Liberian refugees. The men escaped war and poverty in their homeland by singing. Now they are making music to help their homeland, after receiving political asylum from the United States and settling in Vancouver, Washington.

The ensemble makes about 100 performances a year, touring churches, schools and festivals mainly in the states of Washington and Oregon. At one recent appearance, the singers - in their 20s and 30s - are wearing sunglasses, African shirts and matching black pants as they perform their a cappella version of "Praise God, Hallelujah" at a Lutheran Church. Their infectious rhythms propel the usually reserved minister to dance in front of her congregation.

The members of the group met as boys in the choir at Liberia's only school for the blind. When civil war broke out in 1989, the boarding school was ransacked. The students scattered into the countryside to avoid death squads.

"I had to change my name from Nitanyu to Morris," says member Morris Kermon. "That is why you see Morris today because they were trying to kill people from that tribe."

Lasana Kanneh recalls pleading for his life at rebel gunpoint. "I was threatened to be killed, he says. "I had to get on my knees and beg."

The school friends eventually drifted back to the capital, Monrovia. They sang on street corners and in churches to survive. Then they came to a realization, says Mr. Kanneh. "We said, 'Now we're all here…we need to form a group. We don't want to just sit around."

Their first gospel choir was called "Echoes of the Blind." One original song they performed was written in response to the violence and looting that were tearing Liberia apart. "We were trying to get a message to the fighters and people in the military," says lead vocalist Lasana Kanneh, who composed the song, "[that] no matter what you have done, if you repent you can be forgiven." The song, "Zacheous," is based on a Bible story about a corrupt tax collector who repents. As the lyrics put it, "You see, Zacheous got his salvation. You can do the same."

In 1998, an evangelical Christian group brought six of the men to the United States for a singing tour. After a performance in Washington State, they met Karalie Pehlke, who had adopted four Liberian orphans. "Every time they came through the Northwest, I would meet up with them, because my son lived with them in Liberia," she recalls. "When that tour ended they said, 'Hey, can we move out here?' I said, 'Okay.' So we all moved into my mobile home." She laughs. "We had 12 people living there for a year."

Ms. Pehlke helped the six men apply for and receive political asylum. Now she books their concerts, drives their bus, engineers the sound, and manages the finances.

As they did in Liberia, the friends still sing to support themselves. They're also sending money back home. Some of the funds pay for food at their old school. Some goes toward building a job training center for the disabled -- a facility that's especially needed, they say, in a country where there are few services, opportunities or respect for anyone with a disability.

Karalie Pehlke says the men cannot return to their homeland. "They have political asylum," she says. "They can't go back…but there's no reason to. They can do more for the disabled doing exactly what they're doing here."

The a cappella group sings in English and several Liberian dialects. Group members say their musical harmonies are getting more sophisticated the longer they stay in the United States and are exposed to different musical traditions. Those new sounds can be heard on two CDs scheduled for release this year.