Merlene Davis: Refugee children's choir sings for the joy of it

Herald-Leader columnistMay 14, 2014 

The Refugee Children's Choir features kids from age 3 to about 15.

  • A performance by The Refugee Children's Choir

    When: 4 p.m., May 18.

    Where: Maxwell Presbyterian Church, 180 E. Maxwell Street.

    Information: Call the Kentucky Refugee Ministries Lexington at (859) 226-5661

They come to Maxwell Presbyterian Church on Saturday mornings with smiles, anticipation and a variety of languages.

They are the children of Congolese families who have left the uncertainties of refugee camps scattered around countries in Africa for a more stable life in America and specifically in Lexington.

But for a couple of hours, they gather at the church, put aside the stress of adjusting to a foreign culture, and they sing.

Ranging in age from 3 to about 15, the children are members of The Refugee Children's Choir, a group created by Barbara Kleine, director of Kentucky Refugee Ministries in Lexington.

"It just seemed like a great way to give the children something to do, something outside of their homes and schools," Kleine said. "It was a way for them to learn more about our culture and to learn English."

Although she takes credit for the idea, Kleine knew she needed more musical expertise than she could provide to get the group up and running.

"I am the least musical person in the country," she said. "I have no talents in this. This is pretty much a God-driven thing."

With seed money from Partners for Youth and Crossroads Christian Church, Kleine put out feelers to church music directors and to people connected to the University of Kentucky School of Music.

Darnaby Kerns, a student in music education, saw an email seeking a music director for a new refugee choir. He didn't have much experience in teaching music to young people so he thought it would be a good move.

Kerns talked with Lisa Braswell, a friend who had graduated from the school of music, and she agreed to help and be the accompanist.

"She and I talked about it and emailed them and said 'You have a team,'" he said.

They didn't audition or anything. "It fell into our laps," he said.

"We did not have people beating down the door," Kleine said, laughing.

Kerns and Braswell were joined by Tanner Stevens, also a music student, and together they started the choir.

"We didn't know if we were going to have four children or 40," Kleine said. "They have taken it from scratch."

Bethany Atkins, youth services coordinator at KRM, said the young people are all Congolese, but they have lived in several countries as their families fled the humanitarian crisis that was the result of a five-year civil war and ongoing conflict.

Most, she said, speak Swahili and French in addition to their regional languages.

Every year, KRM helps more than 250 refugees from throughout the world find homes in Lexington.

The choir's first practice was last fall and, interestingly enough, language was not the most difficult barrier, Kerns said.

"The age difference is what worried us," he said. "They ranged in age from 3 years old to middle schoolers. We didn't really know how to teach them as a unified group."

There were about 20 members at first, he said, but has grown to about 25, with some coming more regularly than others. The first group included Nepalese students, but they have since dropped out.

Kleine said she hopes to encourage some Bhutanese and Iraqi students to join, too.

"Music and singing is in the Congolese culture," she said. "It is more familiar to them. But we hope to expand it at some point and reflect the diversity of refugees that we have."

Regardless, the Congolese students are disappointed when practice is postponed or canceled.

Atkins coordinates the student's transportation to practice as well as to performances. KRM has one van and one driver, Kleine said, but all the children won't fit inside. The agency also gets help with transportation from Centenary United Methodist Church and from Southside Christian Church.

"Saturdays are taken care of but performances are a little bit of trouble," she said. "We have to turn down requests."

But that is the grown-up problems. The children simply want to sing.

Co-directors lead the children in musical games that teach music basics, Kerns said. They hope to split into several groups based on age, so that the older students can learn the techniques of being in a choir while the younger ones are prepared to get to that stage.

Still, together, with the range of ages, the choir manages to elicit a lot of "awhs."

During a performance at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center recently, the youngest seemed more interested in their clothing than the audience. But what they lack in professionalism, Kleine said, they more than make up for in spirit.

You will get a chance to see that for yourself on May 18 when the choir has its first official fundraiser. A freewill offering will be collected which will help defray the cost of bus passes to help some of the children get to practice, and for snacks, T-shirts and perhaps some percussion instruments.

The choir will also perform June 13 at the annual fundraiser "Rockin' Round the World," which will also feature a silent auction, a wine pull, and entertainment by Boogie G and the Titanics, at The Livery, 238 East Main Street.

And the choir will perform June 20 at World Refugee Day Summit, at the Central Library. After that, the choir takes a break until August, after school starts.

So, head over to Maxwell Street Presbyterian to see one of their last performances for the season. "It is a fabulous way to see the faces of refugees," Kleine said.

"Some people have never met a refugee or seen a refugee. This will be a real introduction," she added.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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