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Linda Mah
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Orchestra Rouh: A Spirited New Ensemble

Orchestra Helps Build Community for Refugee, Immigrant Students

Two Western Michigan University international graduate students noticed something about the immigrant and refugee children they were helping settle into Kalamazoo.

The children, who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools, were having their basic needs met. There was housing. Parents were getting help finding jobs. Health problems were getting medical attention. Children were enrolling in school. Everyone was learning English. But the children were feeling out of place. They were at loose ends.

So Ahmed Tofiq and Bashdar Sdiq turned to the one unique tool they had to help these children build a community, to find a place to fit in: music.

“I found that the music is the best way to encourage them, because music is the universal language. When they play the music, everyone can understand them,” Tofiq said.

Tofiq, a violinist, and Sdiq, a cellist, along with Western Michigan University Arabic instructor Hend Ezzat Hegab, approached the KSO in February 2017 and asked for help in establishing a new ensemble for the children.

It was christened Orchestra Rouh, rouh meaning “hope” and “spirit” in Arabic.

The orchestra consists of 19 children between the ages of 7 and 14, all from Syria and Iraq. A rehearsal is an exercise in controlled chaos. Floating through the air are strains of Kurdish, Arabic and English, along with the notes of violins, violas and cellos, running through familiar Suzuki training songs such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” Middle Eastern folk songs, and Christmas music.

And, because these are children, there is chatter and laughter as they pull out cellphones to take selfies.

Sisters Roshen and Zeinab Ahmad are in the orchestra. Roshen, a seventh-grade violinist at Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts, and Zeinab, a sixth-grade cellist who attends Maple, are studying with Tofiq and Elizabeth Youker, respectively. Youker took over cello instruction after Sdiq returned to his homeland of Iraqi Kurdistan, from which Tofiq and he come.

The girls began music lessons in March, just one month after moving to Kalamazoo. Neither had played an instrument before.

“It’s fun,” Roshen said. “We are happy when we play.”

Zeinab’s favorite song is “Can Can,” while Roshen likes “Jingle Bells.”

The hardest part, said Roshen, is putting your fingers on the right place on the strings and keeping the song in tune.

Zeinab said the hardest part of learning to play is how your fingertips hurt from pushing down on the strings.

But now, Zeinab said, “It’s easy peasy.”


It can sometimes take years for efforts like this to organize, but in this case, the new ensemble was born in a matter of weeks, with lessons and rehearsals beginning in March.

“It was really time sensitive,” said Youker, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra vice president for education and community partnerships. They knew Sdiq would be returning home when his studies were completed at WMU. “If it was going to happen, it had to happen then.”

It took a coalition to bring the program together. Orchestra Rouh is offered under the umbrella of KSO Education Programs in partnership with the Suzuki Academy of Kalamazoo. Instruments have been provided by Meyer Music of Kalamazoo. The Irving S. Gilmore Foundation provided start-up funding. The students have individual lessons, participate in group lessons, and attend orchestra rehearsals.

“All of the volunteers are American, and they have been very supportive of the kids,” Tofiq said. “They want a better life for the children and encourage them to practice. They help them prepare for their class.”

Sometimes the students participate in group lessons and rehearsals with students in Kalamazoo Kids In Tune (KKIT), another KSO student ensemble, housed at Woods Lake Elementary: A Magnet Center for the Arts. That program combines music lessons with academic tutoring and support. KKIT is a partnership among Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Public Schools.

A strong component of Orchestra Rouh has been the inclusion of Arabic music performed on traditional instruments or sometimes sung. It allows the students to celebrate music that is important to the children and their families' home cultures, Youker said.

None of the children had previous musical experience before beginning the lessons.

“A number of the families had been in refugee camps, so there was not a lot of opportunity for basic education, let alone extras,” Youker said.

The orchestra gives the children an opportunity to learn music, but to also have some place to speak their native language and to be with others who share their experiences. Most are not in school together, so rehearsals and lessons are a unique chance to meld a new experience while retaining a sense of language and culture.

There have been many requests to have the kids perform from community members wanting to welcome and showcase the kids. That has been a wonderful thing, Youker said, not just because it allows the community to welcome the children and to learn about them as more than refugees, but because the young performers feel a sense of pride in performing and giving back to the community.

“A lot of help is needed for these families, but they are also able to contribute to our community as well,” Youker said. “It’s been a wonderful thing for all of us. It’s helping everyone gain some deeper understanding of the experience our new neighbors are having here.”

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