Foundation House is an organisation set up to help refugees and migrants who are survivors of torture in other countries, assisting them with settlement services and connecting them with other organisations such as AMES on arrival in Australia. It is also the starting point in this story of a group of Chaldean Christian women who have hopes of becoming the Assyrian Women’s Choir.
The Assyrian Women’s group is a group of Chaldean women who have fled persecution and torture in Iraq and Syria. Persecuted for being Christian and for speaking a different language, these women have been migrating to safety in Australia to begin a new life for more than twenty years, and they keep coming.
Whenever new refugees or migrants arrive, the women mobilise themselves into a welcome committee, travelling out to the airport. They help the new arrivals to find their feet in this foreign country where for many of them, language is a barrier. Every Friday, the women meet to sing and cook food together, sharing stories of their lives, old and new, as well as offering skills and support to each other. They are from places in Iraq we’ve all heard about in the news, and they know the pain of conflict, displacement, persecution and loss.
A strong love for singing their traditional Arabic and Chaldean folk songs exists between the women, and this is how Sarah Mandie, Diversity Coordinator with Community Music Victoria came to be involved in their journey.
Sarah approached Foundation House to offer skills and support to the staff and community to in her capacity as a singing leader and facilitator. Carolyn Wilson, one of the senior counsellors there, immediately thought of the Chaldean Christian Women’s group and arranged for Sarah and CMVic’s Coordinator, Oli Hinton, to meet with them. Translator and Foundation house worker, Dr Salam Dankha, made communication possible. At the first meeting, Oli and Sarah were welcomed with traditional food and songs, and a bond was formed. In 2017 a further two sessions were planned for Sarah to work with the group ahead of their participation at the International Women’s Day celebrations, at Dianella Health in Craigieburn.
During the first session, the women chose to sing two songs: one, an Iraqi song about the beauty of Iraqi women, and the second a folk song about courtship and the relevance of bringing gifts for the girl. Their enthusiasm was evident and they conveyed their hopes of galvanising the group into something with a more formal structure which would enable them to preserve and share the music as messengers of their culture and as advocates for peace in the wider community.
Sarah has been enabling the women to find a focus and they have plans to write a song together, an anthem unique to the group, written around universal morals and themes such as peace, as part of their journey of healing, participation and empowerment.
The next phase is to obtain the funding necessary for Sarah to continue her work with the Assyrian women because, as she says, “I’ve already developed a relationship with them, and it’s a good one.” Supporting the group in selecting a repertoire and helping them to develop the structure they need to become a sustainable choir constitutes part of a proposed new CMVic led project called ‘Voices of Peace‘.
“It’s about giving the leaders already in place within the Assyrian community some skills and structure to use, it’s also about support in identifying potential new leaders and it’s about assistance with sustainability.” as well as offering suggestions and feedback around how the songs are sung: “It’s one thing for the women to sit and sing music of their culture together but in order to get out and share the material, some guidance is necessary.”
While the group is comprised solely of Assyrian women, these women are open to everyone, no matter where they are from. They don’t have any barriers around ethnicity, religion, etc. Instead, there is open-ness, recognition and acceptance of difference:
“They just understand…I told them I have an Indian husband, and that I’m Jewish and it created this openness, I mean, we’re all just different aren’t we, and we want to get along.”
This is the focus and purpose of the group: to sing their music, celebrate and preserve their unique culture and through sharing this love of it with others, to create greater harmony and understanding in society, improving mental and physical health and well-being along the way on the road to recovery.
As part of the International Women’s Day event, there was a fashion parade and it was a chance for everyone to get dressed up and a celebration for all women, from all cultures. “The Assyrian women came out wearing jewelled gowns, and having a wonderful time with the Indian women; celebrating being women.”
As the Assyrian Women’s Choir, these women will find new opportunities and ways to meet people, make connections and friendships, to share and celebrate where they are from and and to participate and contribute to the richness of the diverse, inclusive and safe society they have found themselves part of.
Listen to an early session with the Assyrian Women’s group, here.
Written by Deb Carveth with Sarah Mandie for Community Music Victoria