At 11 years old, Majid has a voice that more than does justice to her slight four-foot frame.
Standing in the hallway of the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, Majid is practising one of several songs she has learned as a member of Nai Syrian Children’s Choir. This song is about peace, a new concept for the young choir members, all newly arrived refugees from Syria.
“I like singing songs in English, Arabic, and … English again,” Majid says, her eyes sparkling, “and we sing at home too. It is good for the language. And it’s … fun!”
The choir also helps Majid in ways unrelated to language.
“It’s important for them to express themselves,” her mother Mayda says. “And to forget what we had escaped from. To just be children and enjoy singing.”
Music programs have emerged as a valuable tool to help integrate refugees, especially children, into their new Canadian surroundings. They have the potential to help youth overcome the emotional, linguistic, academic and social challenges of adjusting to their new home.
Fei Tang founded the Nai Syrian Children’s Choir in Toronto last spring while she worked at CultureLink, a settlement agency. The choir has a performance planned at the House of Commons later this year, says Tang.
“Music is very important for the healing process,” she says, recounting how music helped her adjust to life in Canada after she arrived from China 16 years ago.
As of early October, more than 32,000 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada. Almost two-thirds spoke neither French nor English.
Last month, Statistics Canada released new Canadian population estimates and indicated more than 86,000 immigrants arrived during the second quarter of this year, many of them under the age of 19.
Inspired by his own upbringing as a child of Grenadian immigrants, University of Calgary sociology student Stefan Lewis has written a master’s thesis on the role of music in integrating newcomer youth.
Lewis noticed that many young immigrants in Calgary were joining hip-hop music initiatives.
“Music can foster feelings of inclusion, and help youth deal with barriers they may face in Canada, such as discrimination, language issues, and social isolation,” he says. “Through music, youth can immerse themselves into the social fabric of Canada to create their own ‘Canadian,’ existence.”
One example is Common Influence, a Calgary group of over 30 singers, emcees, poets, musicians and DJs. It performs at cultural groups and community centres around the city, with the aim of creating a “community of belonging,” says the group’s founder Vilaphone (J.Villa) Chanthabouala.
Matthew House, a refugee reception centre in Toronto, started a music program known as Music in the Garden for its residents this past summer.
“We brought in bands to perform, and the younger residents especially really enjoyed it,” says executive director Karen Francis.
She notes that music can make an important contribution to young people’s emotional well-being, especially those who have recently escaped traumatic situations in their home countries.
“Music brings people together,” she says, “For a moment, when immersed in music, it doesn’t matter where one is from … the trauma or the history or the struggles are forgotten. That’s the magical part of music.”
Jean McRae, chief executive of the Inter-Cultural Association (ICA) in Victoria, B.C., describes a partnership between local leader Lina de Guevara, herself a former refugee, and ICA to create interactive theatre projects with newcomer youth. Those projects have relied heavily on music, which McRae says “illustrates how complex the issues facing immigrant and refugee youth really are.”
Some existing music programs at schools have adapted to take account of the needs of new Canadians, including the one at Rose Avenue Public School in Toronto.
Andrew Luck, one of the school’s music teachers, has changed his curriculum to focus on the needs of these children — both those who speak very little English and fluent English-speakers from diverse cultural backgrounds.
“It’s not what I teach, but how,” Luck says. “Music education should reflect the real world, and be accessible to all children. That way everyone can feel included.”
Luck uses games and other interactive activities to engage students. For instance, body percussion, which consists of tapping, clapping and snapping movements, does not require English language skills. He also asks children to bring instruments to class from their countries of origin.
One child brought in a drum from the Karnataka region of southern India.
“It became an experience for all of the children, and a way for us to learn a bit more about musical traditions around the world, while fostering a sense of acceptance and appreciation for the child’s cultural background,” Luck says.
Dr. Ripudaman Minhas, a developmental pediatrician in Toronto, points to research showing how music helps children integrate into new surroundings.
“Participation in music builds social skills, communication skills, and can help in the development of self-esteem and self-identity,” Minhas says.
Luck adds that “music has this power to include people all over the world. If it comes from an honest place, I really think it can accomplish great things.”
Dr. Amitha Kalaichandran is a Munk Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto.