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The power of music in healing communities

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The power of music in healing communities

The Nai Children’s Choir’s teachers and their charges are composing a new song, Nature Journey, about immigration and integration, during their week of summer camp at at the Toronto Public Library Don Mills branch. The kids clap and bob their heads to the beat. A little girl crawls into her neighbour’s lap. “What is the deeper meaning of this song?” asks the choir’s manager. One boy pipes up: “It’s about the rainbow – it makes me feel better.” “It’s about moving forwards, not backwards,” says an older girl. She’s hit the nail on its head.

The Nai Children’s Choir was created in 2016 by a team of staff and passionate musicians from settlement organization CultureLink to help Syrian refugee children move forwards from trauma. The choir started shortly after the Syrians arrived in Canada. In December 2015, Fei Tang, who was working for CultureLink, delivered donations to the Plaza Hotel where many of the newcomers were languishing while their children ran wild underfoot. “It was depressing – they were trapped since they didn’t know the city (and) didn’t speak English,” she recalls.

Tang, an avid choir singer, thought the children could benefit from the structure and positive energy of music. With the help of others, her vision became a reality. The Nai Choir (“nai” means “the sound of the flute” in Arabic) had their first rehearsal at CultureLink in April 2016.

The positive energy of music and arts

Research has shown that music, as well as other arts-based initiatives, improve mental health and general well being. According to Amy Clements-Cortes, music therapist and Assistant Professor, University of Toronto, the healing power of music has been established since the early l9th century. Music engages many different parts of the brain, helping us feel things more deeply, and drawing out our hidden emotions. Music is also a powerful memory aid. Familiar songs, like lullabies, that conjure up happier moments from the past, could be comforting to the refugees, says Clements-Cortes. Just listening to these soothing melodies lowers our stress hormone cortisol, and boosts the feel-good brain substance dopamine. Singing together in a choir setting releases the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin, promoting contentment and trust. The process of working together on a concert helps choir members to bond. “It helps them feel part of something bigger,” she says.

Organizations, like the Syrian-Canadian Foundation (SCF), help often traumatized Syrian newcomers adapt to their new home, using photography, theater, and writing as tools of healing. These arts-based programs are especially useful in communities where formal psychiatric care is stigmatized, says Bayan Khatib, Executive Director of the SCF. Music, visual arts, writing, and other forms of creativity help trauma victims express themselves in ways that are less scary than speaking. The programs themselves offer a built-in audience to listen and share the participants’ experience, fostering a feeling of connection and belonging. This sense of fitting in with like-minded peers can transcend the specific group and help participants to integrate into Canada. “When you’re doing art you’re also giving something to others….this gives you the feeling of contributing to the community,” says Khatib.

A sanctuary from stress

The magic of music is not restricted to one nationality. While the focus of the Nai Children’s Choir was originally on the Syrians, the group has since opened its doors to other immigrants and refugees from war-torn countries. The participants, most between the ages of six and 12, rehearse weekly in two regular locations (with a third outreach program in variable settings) in Toronto. Last year, the fluid membership reached around 300 children.

The initiative was badly needed. Children fleeing Syria’s war zone have had to process more pain than most of their Canadian peers, says choir founding member and coordinator Nadeen Abu Shaban. Many of them were too young to understand the reasons for their sudden departure, and mentally unprepared to face challenges like learning English and forging friendships.

Unable to move forward, they pined for old friends and family left behind, says staff musician Esmaeel Abofakher. The choir provided a sanctuary from stress. Singing songs in their native Arabic was comforting for those who were homesick, says Abofakher. Feeling safe, they began to bond to new buddies. The group gave the children a place to belong. Syrian refugee Julia Alyazji, now 16, felt lonely after her arrival in Canada a year ago, and missed hearing melodies by Lebanese singer Fairuz. Rehearsing the superstar’s music along with the Nai Choir rekindled good memories and made her feel at home. Alyazji expresses herself better in singing than in speaking, she says. “When I sing I get in the mood, I get really dramatic.” She has now graduated from participant to mentor at the choir. “People can actually know who I am when I’m singing,” she says.

Bridging the cultural gap

The choir has also helped bridge the cultural gap between the children’s birthplace and their adopted homeland, says Abu Shaban. Singing English songs built up their vocabulary in an enjoyable way. The choristers’ involvement in community concerts, (including one at Parliament), boosted their social standing and helped them connect to their peers. “So instead of being left out in class, he’s someone …interesting to talk to,” says Abu Shaban.

The choir’s music has been as therapeutic as its social aspect. Music helps us access our feelings because it is inherently emotional, says Montreal General Hospital music therapist Dany Bouchard. Artists draw inspiration from intense situations like heartbreaks and highs, channelling their sentiments into the composition’s elements, including rhythm, melody, and lyrics. Listening to these turbulent tunes enables us to tap into our own feelings, says Bouchard. Minor chords, for instance, trigger sadness, while major chords evoke happiness. “Music is giving you the emotional support you don’t have when you just talk,” he says. Just as a trusted friend can help us to open up, so too music encourages us to access our painful past.

A message of hope

Performance night at Scarborough Civic Centre, Aug 2019. Photo courtesy: Nai Children’s Choir.

Staff select the repertoire carefully. Music helps twelve-year old chorister Patricia Issa, who fled Syria two years ago, process her anxiety. Issa’s favorite piece is John Lennon’s Imagine, which envisions a world without war. “It makes me hopeful that there will be peace in Syria…again.” If listening to tunes helps the kids access their feelings, actively making music aids in releasing them. Abofakher teaches the kids to experiment with different instruments and write their own pieces to reflect their personal vision. “We try to listen to them more than just give answers,” says Abofakher.

But while music can be cathartic, it can also give us a break from our troubles. Singing in a group demands concentration – you have to hit the right pitch and mesh with others, says Abu Shaban. “So those worries they deal with are put aside,” she says.

Performing these pieces yields the satisfaction of mastery, says Abu Shaban. Some kids who join the choir worry that they can’t sing at all. “We always tell them it’s OK to make mistakes,” she says. As their voices improve their morale follows suit.

The Scarborough Civic Centre in Toronto is festooned one summer evening with pink and purple balloons as the children’s voices ring out clearly in performance. Some hold hands and they all smile and sway together. The spectators lean forward, spellbound. When it’s over, the performers bow and their parents leap up to embrace them. Their relatives aren’t the only ones beaming. “I’m so proud of them – in one week we are able to sing those songs, (that’s) not easy,” says Abofakher. No one wants to leave. A bunch of kids play soccer with the balloons. One little boy twirls in circles to a tune inside his head.

Patricia’s mother Gina Shahhaf peruses the buffet table with the other parents. She’s thrilled with how far this group has come, both in music and in life. “The children are very confident – they want to fly,” she says.

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