The Nai Syrian Children’s Choir continues to impress and inspire audiences – most recently at 6 Degrees, a three-day event bringing together leaders on inclusion and citizenship. Nai received at a standing ovation at the star-studded opening night, where the Rt. Honourable Madame Adrienne Clarkson told her favorite Nai story to an audience of over a thousand. Fei Tang describes the inspiration behind the Nai Syrian Children’s Choir, which she founded at CultureLink:
On a cold January night, Monique De Margarie, a piano teacher who worked with my children, approached me at a concert. She asked me whether the Syrian refugee children we served at CultureLink would benefit from her free piano lessons, because she’d love to volunteer. While I appreciated her idea, at that time I was more concerned about getting the kids out of the hotels for some fun and helping to winterize them.
In February we co-organized a skating party with Elvis Stojko and The Second Cup for more than 100 refugees who were staying at the Plaza Hotel. And a week later we partnered with Parkbus to take another group of families to Arrowhead Provincial Park for a full-day ski and snowshoeing trip. In -18 C temperature, parents and children seemed to forget all about the problems that bothered them so badly those days and joined in for silly, wobbly chasing, snowball fighting, tubing and other fun. On the bus trip home, we met head-on with a winter snow storm, crawling along Highway 400. I was worried about the 35 children on the bus – they’d become so tired and restless, and they might throw tantrums. But, they were not! For four hours, they were singing in the bus – happily and nonstop!
The next day I called Monique and told her excitedly, “Let’s start a choir, Mo! You don’t know how much these kids love to sing!”
Why a choir?
My children are with the Toronto Children’s Chorus (TCC), I have seen firsthand how my children have benefited from singing with a choir. The choir not only gives them formal music training, but also instills discipline in them, teaches them how to achieve harmony in collaboration with others, exposes them to other cultures, and encourages them to make friends with children outside of their schools. I was determined to provide similar choir experience for the refugee children that my kids are privileged to enjoy. And we have done it! For example, our choir has taken part in a musical retreat in Orillia emulating what TCC provides to their choristers, thanks to the generous donation of YMCA Geneva Park and Orillia Vocal Ensemble.
We find the three words “healing, learning and rejoicing” summarize it all. Unlike a conventional music education institution, we are less concerned about perfection of their singing, but more focused on promoting our children and their families’ wellbeing. My younger girl’s teacher at TCC last year, Shireen Abu-Khader, was an established Arabic choral director. She kindly directed our three initial rehearsals and the choir’s name was her idea. Nai means “the sound of the flute” in Arabic. She cited Gibran Khalil Gibran, one of the greatest poets of the Arabic-speaking world:
“Give me the flute, and sing
immortality lies in a song
and even after we’ve perished
the flute continues to lament”
Nai symbolizes both the Syrian people’s resilience and music’s magic power of healing.
By Fei Tang, choir mom, founder of the Nai Choir, and past manager of Community Connections Mentorship Program
At the beginning of August, four CultureLink youth were led on a backcountry portage trip in Algonquin Park for 5 days, thanks to a partnership with Project Canoe. Project Canoe uses the outdoors, including wilderness canoeing, to create a transformative environment in which young people facing barriers develop life skills, social competencies, and resiliency, thereby fostering their own personal success. They partner with youth, supporting them as they carry these skills and successes forward to manage the complex challenges of their lives. CultureLink staff Barbora Gomezova and Chantelle Campbell-Sholzberg accompanied the youth as Lizzy and Holly guided the group.
This iconic Canadian experience was more than a physical journey for the girls (all female trip), it was a time to connect with each other and with nature. Jennifer soaked in the whole adventure: “Project Canoe was a great experience for me. I learned how take a canoe by myself and have mental control to get physical strength. I feel more strong after the trip. Sometimes we need to take a break from city and feed our soul from nature’s energy, and Algonquin Park is the perfect place. I wish to go again someday and learn more things about me and about how take care of the environment.”
The journey was magical. We came together on the last leg of a 1km portage to relay the canoe. We had a full henna session resulting in beautiful masterpieces. The final night we laid out on a rock under the stars to watch the Perseid meteor shower. Algonquin made many lasting memories that will be reflected on for years to come.
By Chantelle Campbell-Sholzberg, Bike to School Project
As of May 2016, CultureLink has become a Royal Ontario Museum Community Access Network (ROMCAN). ROMCAN enables CultureLink to take participants on group outings to the ROM thanks to the 600 free passes that have been awarded to the agency. We can now count our agency as one of 40 partner agencies that have this incredibly valuable access. ROMCAN exists to provide free access to communities who may not otherwise visit the ROM. CultureLink is pleased to be on board with ROMCAN and further advance the ROM’s goal to make their collection accessible to a greater diversity of the public.
This is very exciting news for people who are engaged in activities with CultureLink as, over the next year, staff will be going to the ROM on numerous excursions. In fact, staff and participants are so excited about this programs that in a matter of three months, CultureLink has already used over half of the passes available in over 15 group outings at the ROM for our eager participants.
Organized group outings to the ROM broaden the horizons of our participants, enrich social and learning and help create memories for people that may even lead to further involvement with the ROM’s many civic engagement opportunities. Important connections unfold through a ROM visit through the vast number of displays that focus on socio-cultural richness from all over the world. For most participants, it will be their first visit to Toronto’s prestigious ROM and this wonderful opportunity has been taken up with open arms and minds.
By Lisa Randall, Manager, Settlement Workers in Schools program
I was once a newcomer too. I came here two years ago. When I came here I felt very nervous, lonely, sad and a little excited. I had to leave my family, close friends, cousins and my culture. It was bad at first. I had a hard time learning the language, figuring out the school system, Canadian culture and making friends. But despite of all the problems that I experienced I gained courage and confidence. I learned the language, I made friends… tons of friends, I experienced working and volunteering and I couldn’t do all this without the people who supported me when I wasn’t confident. I thank them for their utmost support. Time flew by and here I am a Peer Leader with the NOW program for newcomers. I completely recommend whoever is “New to Canada” to join us in this program and we will teach, reflect and enjoy life here in Canada as I give you the courage and confidence to make friends, learn English, learn the culture and school systems and bring out your “inner self” . So you can be the best that you can possibly be.
By Brian Villacorta, Peer Leader
For many newcomer students, navigating the Canadian education system can be quite challenging. To give students a better understanding of the new education environment and school culture, CultureLink’s Settlement Workers in Schools Program (SWIS) annually hosts a four-day Newcomer Orientation Week Program (NOW) at selected schools, one week before school year begins. The overall goal is to promote confidence in the newcomer youth by providing a circle of new friends with similar experiences and an understanding of school rules and personnel in the hopes that this new life will bring more awareness and success both academically and personally.
Activities are led and supported by volunteer Peer Leaders, who are past NOW program participants. This year, approximately 30 Peer Leaders were recruited, representing Central Technical Institute, Central Toronto Academy, Harbord Collegiate, Jarvis Collegiate, St. Mary’s, Bishop Morrocco, Bishop Allen and St. Joseph College schools. They participated in two days of intensive leadership and training activities led by the SWIS Team, to prepare them to pass on their NOW knowledge to a fresh group of newcomer immigrant students. Peer Leaders provide direct support to newcomer students making them feel welcome, informed about and comfortable with their upcoming school experience, and gain valuable leadership experience themselves.
By Abdi Yousuf, Assistant Manager, Settlement Workers in Schools