With Singing Our Stories Project, CFA’s André de Quadros Will Bring Music Workshops to Migrant and Refugee Children
Aim of new international undertaking: music-making can help them adjust in their new lives
Refugee and migrant children and youth face a host of challenges that can hinder their adjustment to new homes and new lives. André de Quadros believes rhythm and melody can help.
A College of Fine Arts professor of music and music education, de Quadros is collaborating on a new three-year international study offering music workshops to displaced children and teens in several locations around the globe, likely including at the US-Mexico border.
The Singing Our Stories project, supported by a $447,000 grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, will explore how music-making, songwriting, and storytelling can support young people’s well-being and cultural and individual resilience.
“Essentially, what we are doing is to create a space for them to make music, to create their own songs,” says de Quadros, “so they will be able to speak about the violence they’ve suffered, and by violence I mean the significant trauma of several kinds that is associated with forced migration.”
De Quadros spends much of his time using music to turn the beat around for people who need it, whether inmates in Massachusetts prisons through BU’s Race, Prison, Justice Arts project, migrants at the US-Mexico border, or Palestinians on the West Bank. Using artistic expression in service of social justice is what he does.
The goal of Singing Our Stories is not to prepare the kids for a recital, but for them to benefit from the process of making music, whether a simple drum circle or performing songs from their culture or even writing songs about their experiences of displacement.
They bring with them songs that their mothers or fathers sung to them, that get stuck in their heads.
The principal applicant on the grant is Andrea Emberly, an associate professor in the Children, Childhood and Youth program at York University in Toronto. “We hope that the project can help support refugee children and young people in expressing their lived experiences through music and collaborative music-making,” Emberly says, “in order to challenge some of the discriminatory narratives that refugee children and young people face.”
DeQuadros is a co-applicant on the grant, along with Kate Reid, a postdoctoral researcher at York, and Mirna El Sabbagh of COSTI, a Toronto-based nonprofit immigrant services agency. Gillian Howell, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne is also collaborating on the project.
“André is one of the world leaders on the study of music and migration, and so we were so excited when he agreed to collaborate on this global project,” Emberly says. “His work with refugee and newcomer children and young people has had such a positive impact on people’s lives, and we hope that this collaboration can do the same.”
“We are not going in there to teach them André’s song,” says de Quadros, who has long been active in music and art programs in classrooms, prisons, and refugee shelters. “It’s ‘Can we try singing a song from your country?’ They left their musical history behind. They bring with them songs that their mothers or fathers sung to them, that get stuck in their heads. Their baggage consists of stories, dreams, hopes, aspirations, and nightmares—and songs and rhymes and games.”
The hope for the initiative is that participants can begin to heal, participate more fully in their own communities and cultures, and even begin to change prejudiced stereotypes held about them by others.
“We may do music and then paint masks or do some dramatic storytelling, or we do music and then they write poetry and create a song. It’s about telling their stories through their artwork,” de Quadros says. “We hope to bring them instruments—in my experience, kids love drums!”
The researchers have a lot of decisions to make over the summer, including determining study locations, whether in refugee centers in Canada or Australia or more challenging sites like the Mexican border or the West Bank. Logistics are also challenging, as rules and regulations in youth facilities can be complex and stringent, even about something as simple as bringing in a few hand drums. The children and teens are often on the move, too, staying in one center or border location for only a few days or weeks.
Such efforts can also be hamstrung by politics and the discrimination refugees and migrants often face.
“There’s this thing, particularly under Trump, that ‘We’ve got to stop these Mexicans who are drug dealers and rapists,’ so some people have ideas about these Latinos coming across the border,” says de Quadros, who has worked on both sides of the US southwestern border.
“Of course, the majority are Central Americans, but the demographic shifts regularly,” he says. “Lately we have a bunch of Ukrainian refugees coming through the southern border, because it’s easy for them to come out of Europe to Mexico and then come across the border. And we have always had a lot of West Africans, and also people from south Asia—Afghanistan and Bangladesh.”
His point is not to draw distinctions between the groups, but to point out that people in countries receiving refugees and migrants are often mistaken or badly informed about who they are and why they are coming. Done right, the project can help with that, too, and improve the way services are provided to the migrants.
“We are going to have evidence-based research on the role of music in the lives of refugee young people,” de Quadros says. “There will be production of knowledge for people who are working with them, nongovernmental organizations and so on.”
But the most important outcomes are those for the participants themselves. The workshops “are essentially about creating an opportunity for them to arrive,” de Quadros says, emphasizing the word. “Very often they have come without arriving. They are not fully at home, they need to be supported, they need to feel welcomed. These are fundamental aspects of life for newcomers and refugees, and they will improve their sense of well-being.”