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Refugee Girls' Chorus Sings Message of Hope

(From left) Rita Achiro, Ehklas Ahmed and Judith Abdalla sing in the Pihcintu Multicultural Children's Chorus.

Group's 30 members come from 14 countries

When the girls in the Pihcintu Multicultural Children's Chorus sing about peace, the tunes have special meaning for them. Many are refugees who fled their homes in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, seeking refuge from war, persecution and famine.

In their performances - and a new CD - they bring a message of hope to audiences in and around their adopted home of Portland, Maine.

Getting their voices back

At chorus practice this week, it's business as usual. That means goofing off, braiding each others' hair and playing with make-up.

But choral director Con Fullam snaps them to attention. "Let's make this a hot little rehearsal here. Make it happen."

The girls file into two rows and stare straight at him.

One song, "Bells of Freedom," was written by Fullam and Judith Abdalla, a founding member of the Pihcinto Multicultural Children's Chorus.

Born in Sudan, Rita Achiro spent part of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya.
Born in Sudan, Rita Achiro spent part of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kenya.

"We're singing about peace, about coming together, about stopping the wars back in our native lands, and singing about being able to go back and being able to hold on to our languages and our families," says Abdalla, who was born in Sudan and lived in Egypt before coming to the U.S.

At 18, she is a mentor of sorts, along with other young women who've been in the chorus for a few years.

Multicultural Understanding

Rita Achiro was born in Sudan, but was also raised in a refugee camp in Kenya.

"For somebody to hear me sing and be like 'Wow,' it makes me feel good but I also love having more than one person's voice," Achiro says. "Singing as a group it, like, sends a bigger message."

For chorus mate Ehklas Ahmed, getting out the message is cathartic. "In my country, in Darfur, right now there is a genocide that is happening as I'm talking right now, and for me, I sing to feel better because I'm hopeless."

Members of the Pihcintu Multicultural Children's Chorus primp before practice.
Members of the Pihcintu Multicultural Children's Chorus primp before practice.

Director Fullam, who began recruiting singers from Portland schools more than six years ago, hopes the chorus will help these young people get their voices back.

"Knowing that, for me, music has always been a very powerful healing thing, I thought it'd be a good idea to invite as many different refugee communities as possible."

At any given time, there are as many as 30 members from 14 countries - from Iraq to Cambodia. Fullam says the chorus evolved into a girls' group when boys didn't show up for practice.

As to the name of the choir, Pihcintu translates it as, "When she sings, her voice carries far" in Passamaquoddy, a language spoken by a Native American tribe in Maine.

Spreading the message

Performances might have been confined to Maine if not for Patrice Samara, a producer for Alphabet Kids, a line of children's books and CDs aimed at multicultural understanding.

A lawyer for the company suggested she fly to Maine to check out Pihcintu and she was smitten.

In October, Alphabet Kids released a Pihcintu CD.

Samara has begun to book performances for the chorus outside of Maine. The first was in August in Washington, D.C.

She hopes other choruses, inspired by Pihcintu, will form.

"Many, many towns have immigrants. So we're hoping that this model will be embraced around the country."

Ehklas Ahmed is excited about the group's growing fame, but makes sure she stays connected to her native country through song.

"I sing with my cousins a lot at home, almost every Friday and Saturday night, we sing about Sudan, almost any songs that come up with in our head, we start singing right away."

A documentary about the chorus is scheduled for some time next year. Proceeds from the chorus will benefit charities in the girls' home countries.