They are an adorable group and have been delighting Canadian audiences — chubby-cheeked 6-year-olds and joking tween boys, all in yellow polo shirts who snap to attention and sing about grief, love and the YMCA.
But don’t worry, folks. Our hard-line travel ban has stopped them from coming. We can sleep soundly tonight, my fellow Americans, safe from their cuteness.
The Serenade! Choral Festival of D.C. may see those kids as Syrian refugees who have reclaimed their childhood through the magic of music. But to our government, they are little more than potential terrorists.
Syria remains on the list of countries in President Trump’s travel ban. And he made it clear Wednesday that his order to separate children from their families along the U.S.-Mexico border comes from his fears about Muslims coming to America.
“We don’t want people coming in from the Middle East through our border, using children to get through the lines,” he said during a meeting with congressional leaders.
These little singers, apparently, prove his point.
The organizers of the choral festival invited the popular group to join nearly 100 choirs — from everywhere from Baltimore to Zimbabwe, Cuba to Norway — that have performed because of the Nai Kids’ cute songs, sure, but mostly because of their story.
The Syrian children fled the devastation in their homeland and settled in Canada, which was welcoming thousands of them two years ago, about the time Lady Liberty was turning them away.
They are haunted by the memories of fear, of bombings and of the destruction of much of what they knew. The singing — it ranges from French standards and the Canadian anthem to old Syrian favorites — is their therapy. And their English and French lessons. And their way to see their new country and meet Canadians.
“I think we’re more of a social program than a choir,” said Fei Tang, a Canadian choir mom who founded the group after her work in a refugee resettlement office gave her the idea that singing could be the key to helping kids recapture the joy that war had bled out of them.
“When [the Serenade! festival] reached out to us last October, we were so excited. The kids were so excited for the opportunity to sing in the U.S.,” she said. “And it was a compelling idea for us to have the children meet other children from all over the world.”
And this would be the place to do it — the United States, the world’s melting pot. Right?
Even though the kids would be entering from Canada and they have all lived there for about two years, the children’s birth in a country that remains on the U.S. travel ban’s list made their entry — even for just a couple days in a prestigious music festival — unlikely.
The choir parents heard the stories of Syrians trying to reunite with family they had in the United States. And the stories weren’t pretty.
So Tang and the other adults wrestled with it. They could try to apply, but each child would have to be interviewed.
“But if [the choir] did get permission, but were turned around from the border, those kids and the adults would have problems for many years to come,” Tang said. They want neither a paper trail of rejected entry nor the sting of denial. “We didn’t want to subject the children to that experience.”
It’s never a simple process, shepherding performers from all over the world to come to these festivals, said Neeta Helms, the founder and president of Classical Movements, a company based in Alexandria, Va., that arranges the travel for touring orchestras and choral groups.
“It wasn’t easy to get an American visa in the past. They had to go through background checks and interviews,” Helms said.
But between the latest travel ban — which restricts the entry of people from eight predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria, and is in the hands of the Supreme Court — and the separation of children from parents crossing the southern U.S. border without documentation, the rest of the world is sensing that background checks are no longer good enough. The United States just isn’t into “others” anymore.
The Syrian children delighted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when they sang in the House of Commons. And they didn’t want to miss the chance to sing for another powerful audience.
So the organizers came up with an idea. They videotaped the kids singing, and their performance will be shown in the Kennedy Center while they gather in Toronto to watch through a live stream.
It will be on July 1, which is also Canada Day. They’ve got Canadian celebrations to attend after the live-stream event. And there, in person, they can show their new country what they’ve really been hiding for so long — joy.
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