Old songs provide new opportunities


A job training program for refugees isn’t something typically associated with an art museum.

“It’s not really an exhibit based program, but it fits in beautifully with our folk art program,” Kelly Armor, education and folk art director for the Erie Art Museum said.

The program focuses on living artists in the community.  While the museum does have a folk art collection, Old Songs New Opportunities (OSNO) is a unique extension the program.

The refugees who participate learn how to use songs from their own cultural background and other backgrounds with young children.  The songs are learned in both English and the native language.  Then, with instruction on how to use the songs in classrooms, those who participate in the three-month program can then take an internship.

Internships are set up through OSNO and are considered the final portion of the program.  They are held in educational centers, such as St. Martin Center early learning program and the Multicultural Resource Center (MCRC) childcare, with mostly three or four year-olds.

The ultimate goal of the program is find the participants permanent jobs following the internship.  For this reason, the program offers resume building workshops and interviewing advice as well.

After the first OSNO program was completed in 2004, all but one of the nine students found jobs despite the fact that none were very fluent in English.

“But they were singers and dancers,” Armor said. “They had this very intense connection to their own culture’s music and dance traditions.  Their understanding of music was not as a performance, but as this was what you did as a community.”

Music and dance were as easy and natural for these women as it is for most people to eat or breathe.  When people come to America, they leave behind more than people, places, and belongings.  They also leave behind some traditions.  While they bring some to America, not all fit their lifestyle, the new environment.  Song is one of the elements that can be lost in the trip across the ocean.  Outside of the villages and community, some songs just lose their purpose.

“Folk art traditions are completely tied to the culture they belong to, you just can’t just rip them out of it,” Armor explained.  “When the geography is different, when the climate is different, when the living situation is different, then all the traditions that go along with that kind of go out the window.”

She offered the example of an African village.  Armor has spent some time studying music there.  She said that different songs corresponded with different activities and chores.  Maybe the people would gather outside and sing when there was a full moon.  But in Erie, the African refugee community no longer lives in a village where they can easily gather together.  More so, they probably don’t know when the moon is full anymore.

“In an African village, you notice it because you don’t have other lights,” Armor said.

When the first group of OSNO trainees were ready for an internship, a few of them set up an internship at the same childcare center. Armor suggested they visit the site before the first day.

“Introduce yourself.  Figure out where the door is. Figure out how long it takes to get there,” she told them.

She remembers a discussion with the supervisor about the new interns.   The supervisor said she heard the doorbell and found four African women on the doorstep.  The women had a biggest, brightest smiles, as they announced: “We are here.”

Their joy and excitement continued into their first day of the internship and every day after.

“The supervisor said… they brought this vitality and this warmth and this love that was just amazing,” Armor recalled.

“Another supervisor said that often when I have interns they are scared; they are nervous. They don’t want to do the wrong thing and are just like a fly on the wall,” Armor continued.  “But she said, these African women came in and saw a baby crying and just scooped it right up.”

It was easy to obtain funding for a second program because of the first group’s success in the job market.  Since then, there have been four programs held with both men and women from Iraq, Ukraine, Butan, and other places.  Whenever enough interest and funding are available at the same time, the Art Museum holds another session.  The most recent program was completed about a year ago.  Armor hopes to hold another soon.

Armor was reflecting on the time when she studied music in Africa when she came up with the idea of OSNO.

“Living in Africa had changed my life and… now I really wanted to collect more traditional music, but I wasn’t really in a position where I could just go back to Africa,” Armor said.

“And then I thought, wait a minute I can collect music and not leave Erie, Pennsylvania.”

She wasn’t sure how well it would work, but she was hopeful.

“I realized, wow, Americans just don’t sing with kids. We just don’t. We’ve lost that tradition,” she said.

But that tradition exists in other cultures.  The refugees could bring back something America lost.

“These refugees need jobs, they love children, and we’ve got these childcare centers that would love to have a multicultural workforce and to have people who will sing to kids all day long,” she said. “So what were we waiting for?”

Since the beginning of the program, Armor says the childcare programs have become gradually more professionalized, which can make it increasingly difficult for refugees to find a job in the field.

“They’ve really raised the bar for people to work in childcare—which is not a bad thing in general—but it makes it harder for a refugee woman to get hired,” Armor said.

Requirements depend on employers.  Some require a high school diploma.  Some require a certification in early childhood.  Others hire people without such requirements.  Armor said that while she recognizes the importance of such regulations, she believes in some instances refugees have more to offer, even with a high school diploma.  Some refugees are bilingual or trilingual.

“For a childcare center in an inner city context where you have refugees, having those language skills is huge,” she said.

With a few exceptions, OSNO expects its participants to know English.

One of the exceptions was an Iraqi woman, Zara.  She had only been in the United States for a few months when she interviewed to participate in OSNO.  After some hesitation, Armor consulted with a social worker and decided to take the chance.  Her English was definitely the lowest level in the class, but she, perhaps, put in the most effort, learning every song in all the languages.

“It was her vocation,” Armor said.

Since completing the program, Zara has been working at the MCRC childcare program.

“She’s doing fine,” Armor explained.  “There’s some women who’s English is not perfect, but they are good communicators.”

Though the purpose of the program is to help the refugees find employment, even those who don’t are able to take something from the learning experience.

“Even the women who haven’t got jobs say the training has been this watershed moment for them because they’ve never thought about all of this,” Armor said.  “They are struggling with raising their kids who are turning out to be Americans when they don’t know how to raise Americans. They know how to raise Africans. They know how to raise Ukranians… but they don’t know how to raise these kids.”

The program explains how to work with childcare in a daycare or educational center environment, but the lessons can be applied at the refugee’s home and with their own children.

“These women are in such a state of humility,” Armor said.  “They listen to everything our trainer is saying.

Armor recalls a time when one woman’s husband came home, shocked by the quiet house. “What’s wrong? It’s so quiet in here,” he asked.  “I am following the lessons of my teacher,” the woman responded.

“She had realized that she just needed to slow down a little and listen to her children,” Armor said.

Another part of the program teaches the refugees to speak about their own culture.

“It’s not an easy thing. Imagine if someone just drop kicked you into upper Mongolia.  Where do you even begin?” Armor said.

“Two years you finally have a grip on the language, and people ask what’s your culture,” she continued.  “But where do you even begin?  How do you even talk about it?”

The lessons cover that and much more.

If you want to learn more about the program, you can visit their website, Facebook page or YouTube channel.

If you would like to support the program, you  can donate to the INDIGOGO campaign.


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