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Syrian children's choir won't attend festival over fears about U.S. travel

Last Updated Jun 23, 2018 at 9:02 pm EDT

Members of the Nai Children's Choir perform in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Irene Barton

A Toronto-based Syrian children’s choir will not be travelling to the United States to perform at an international festival due to fears about crossing the border under the Trump administration’s travel ban, its founder said Saturday.

Fei Tang, general manager of the Nai Kids Choir, said the chorus of about 60 Canadian newcomers between the ages five and 15 were invited to perform at the Serenade! Choral Festival in Washington, D.C., next week.

Tang said she was thrilled by the opportunity for the children to sing alongside choirs from all over the world in the U.S. capital, but there was just one issue – getting there.

“We looked at the political climate … and decided we probably wouldn’t be able to go,” she said with a sigh. “It’s just not practical.”

Most of the choir members immigrated to Canada within the last two years, said Tang, and some parents worried that travel documents from their home country would raise red flags under a U.S. policy that bans travellers from five majority-Muslim countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

It also affects two non-Muslim countries, blocking travellers from North Korea and some Venezuelan government officials and their families.

The group considered trying to obtain U.S. visas for the children, but rather than “risk their happiness,” said Tang, the choir decided to make other plans.

“In the current immigration policy south of the border, I don’t even see that as worth trying,” she said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection directed a request for comment to the U.S. State Department, saying it was a visa issue. Representatives for the Department were not available for comment Saturday.

Hadeel Abou Ishmes, who came to Toronto with her family eight months ago from the Syrian capital of Damascus, said her two children are heartbroken that the choir’s trip was cancelled.

“Every time they ask me why we cannot go, I do not have any answer … for them,” she said.

Tang said the choir – which performs songs in English and French, as well as Syrian folk tunes – is meant to be part therapy, part musical lesson in Canada’s official languages.

If the children were to be denied entry by U.S. officials, she said she worried the rejection could reverse some of the progress that they’ve made in adjusting to their new home.

“We need to focus on providing the most positive possible experience for the kids,” she said. “We don’t want to have anything triggering their trauma.”

Tang said she worked with festival organizers to arrange for a pre-recorded video of the choir’s performance to be shown at Washington’s Kennedy Center on July 1 while the kids gather in Toronto to watch a livestream of the event.

The children are also busy preparing for a Canada Day concert at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, where they will be joined by Syrian-American rapper Mona Haydar, said Tang.

Abou Ishmes said the choir has provided her children with a platform to start their lives in Canada, and she said she hopes they will one day be able to share their songs with the U.S.

“They love to sing for peace and love,” she said. “To reach their sound all over the world.”

The Toronto District School Board stopped planning trips to the U.S. in March 2017 after Trump signed the first iteration of the travel ban, citing concerns that some students would be turned away at the border.

In February, trustees voted to lift restrictions for U.S. travel related to student competitions and professional development opportunities.