The Middle East Eye: Syrian child refugee choir from Canada cancels US trip over Trump policies

Nai Kids Choir turned down invitation to perform in Washington amid concern children would be turned away at US-Canada border

Nai Kids Choir was formed in early 2016 at CultureLink shortly after Syrian refugees started arriving to Canada (Irene Barton/Courtesy of Nai Kids Choir)

Jillian Kestler-D'Amours

Tuesday 26 June 2018 21:19 UTC

MONTREAL, Canada - A Canadian choir composed of Syrian refugee children will not perform at an event in Washington, DC, later this week because organisers and parents feared the kids would be turned away at the US-Canada border.

The Toronto-based Nai Kids Choir, composed of about 60 Syrian refugee children who have been resettled in Canada, was invited to participate in the Serenade! Choral Festival last autumn.

However, Fei Tang, the choir’s founder and general manager, said her initial excitement quickly “was clouded by what was happening in the US” under the Donald Trump administration.

Since taking office, the US president has repeatedly used racist and incendiary language to describe refugees and asylum seekers, and last year he imposed a travel ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria.

Commonly referred to as a Muslim ban, the US Supreme Court upheld the legality of that decision on Tuesday.

I can’t imagine that we could go if one of them got turned away at the border

- Fei Tang, Nai Kids Choir founder

After receiving the invitation, Tang consulted several people, including other Canadian performers who have tried to travel to the US as part of a musical group and had “terrible experiences” at the border.

Despite being born in Canada, some of those groups’ members were detained by US border officials “because of their Middle Eastern origin and also their Arabic last names and their skin colour or for whatever reason,” Tang told Middle East Eye.

She said several of the parents with children in the choir also told her that their previous US visa applications to visit relatives there were rejected, raising the possibility that some would be turned away.

In that light, the decision to cancel the trip was about “equality and fairness,” Tang said.

“I can’t imagine that we could go if one of them got turned away at the border.”

'A feeling of community'

The choir was formed in early 2016, only a few months after the first planes carrying Syrian refugees began landing in Canada for resettlement. To date, tens of thousands of Syrians have been resettled in Canada as permanent residents.

At the time, however, many families were being put up in hotels in the Toronto area, and Tang, who works with a local resettlement agency, was looking for activities to keep the children busy – and help them integrate into their new community.

“Choir plays a big role in my life and my children’s education. As a choir mom, I thought, ‘this is probably the most accessible way for children to regain fun – through music,’” she told MEE.

“Music and singing together is always very helpful and significant in creating a feeling of community and sense of belonging, especially when they are very new and have been through a lot on their journey to Canada.”

Since then, more than 200 children have been involved with the choir, including some from other countries such as Libya, Tunisia, Sudan, Yemen and Ethiopia, Tang explained.

Today, it is composed of about 60 children, all of whom are originally from Syria, between the ages of five and 15.

They sing in French and English – Canada’s two official languages – as well as in Arabic, and their repertoire includes songs from Syria, the wider Levant region and Canada.

Concert going ahead in Toronto

The choir is not the only Canadian organisation to cancel a trip to the US since Trump took office last year.

In March, the Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest school district, announced it would cancel all trips to the US over the “uncertainty” created by Trump’s travel ban.

Now upheld by the Supreme Court, the "Muslim ban" prohibits most travel into the US for citizens of Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Somalia. It also includes more limited restrictions on some travel from North Korea and Venezuela.

The ban has been difficult for the Syrian families involved with the Nai choir, Tang said, since it makes it difficult for them to visit their friends and family in the US.

Still, she said the show must go on.

On Sunday, the children will perform at the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic art in Toronto alongside Syrian-American rapper Mona Haydar and Jawa Band, a local group also composed entirely of Syrian newcomers.

The children will sing the world premier of a new piece composed by Hussein Janmohamed. The song, Rise Children, Let’s Rise to Peace, includes lyrics in English, French, Arabic and Farsi.

A pre-recorded version of the choir performing that song will be projected on a screen at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts during the Serenade! event they were originally invited to attend in Washington.

“We told the children, ‘Mr. Trump may not want us to be there in person, but nothing can stop our voices [from being] heard,’” Tang said.

“We’re not a political choir, but … we wanted our voice of peace, unity and hope to be heard by our neighbour south of the border and all over the world,” she continued.

“We are sending our love through our songs.”

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