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Asylum seekers voice their joy

13 February 20141 comment

On one level they may not have much to sing about, but for Melbourne’s newest and most unlikely choir it’s all about the experience of coming together and enjoying music.

Choirmaster and founder of the Choir of Hard Knocks Dr Jonathon Welch (AM) has joined with a group of asylum seeker clients from settlement agency AMES to form a new choral group ‘Voices Without Borders’.

The initiative, a collaboration between Dr Welch’s ‘School of Hard Knocks’ organisation and AMES’ Meaningful Engagement Program, has brought asylum seekers from across Melbourne together to enjoy song and social activities.

The choir took part in the fifth birthday celebrations of the Melbourne Recital Centre recently. It will also stage a major performance during Refugee Week (15 – 21 June), with the Choir of Hope and Inspiration at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, on March 31, and at other events throughout the year.

Dr Welch said he was delighted to be part of the project aimed at giving asylum seekers a positive social and cultural experience.

“The choir is giving asylum seekers a chance to experience something different, engage with the broader community and simply experience the joy of singing,” Dr Welch said.

He said singing was a universal language “that crosses cultural borders and builds a sense of home for Melbourne’s newest arrivals”.

“It’s very much all about inclusion. Our singers are just fantastic and it is rewarding to see their faces light up when the singing starts,” Dr Welch said.

Choir member Gobitha Manokar said the choir was a lot of fun and helped her meet a range of new people.

Gobitha, 20, fled Sri Lanka as a child after her father was injured in a bomb attack during the civil war. She spent the next 14 years in a refugee camp in southern India before coming to Australia as a refugee.

“In Sri Lanka we were scared every day of what might happen. Now we are here in Australia and life is much better,” she said. Gobitha enjoyed singing in a choir at school. “This is the first time I have sung in a very long time,” she said.

AMES CEO Cath Scarth said the choir was a good opportunity for asylum seekers to engage with the broader community and have some fun.

“The project is part of AMES’ Meaningful Engagement Program, which seeks to address some of the emotional and social issues our asylum seeker clients face. These can include living with uncertainty, the inability to communicate, living in tight financial circumstances and living at risk of mental health problems,” she said.

“Through this program our volunteers and stakeholders help our clients engage in a range of activities including creative arts, sport and fitness, English/IT and cooking. The program gives clients valued roles in their community and a sense of purpose as they build their skills to potentially settle in Australia,” Cath said.