Refugee youth choir brings joyful songs, dances to Salem

Uhuru Youth Choir. (Courtesy/Uhuru Youth Choir)

Lumona and Nely Mbama remember singing in a choir every day after school at a refugee camp in Tanzania.

The 17- and 19-year-olds were born in the refugee camp in the east African country after their parents fled war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Now, Lumona Mbama said he likes to listen to African beats through his headphones on the way to McKay High School, dancing to the point where his backpack almost falls off. He said people will roll down their windows to make sure he’s okay.

For the siblings, singing and dancing to songs in Swahili has always been joyful.

Now, they’re practicing the same songs in Salem as part of the Uhuru Youth Choir, which means freedom in Swahili.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second largest country in Africa and was host to the Congo Wars that caused more than 5 million deaths, mostly through disease and starvation. Hostilities and turmoil have continued in recent years and last year more than 13 million Congolese needed humanitarian aid. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country as a result.

For many refugees, music helped get them through the difficult time and has stayed with them as they’ve settled into new lives. Now, they hope to share that music.

Lumona Mbama said the 25 choir members chose freedom, because they left the refugee camps where many suffer from hunger and rely on meager food rations from the United Nations. In Tanzania, the government wouldn’t allow them to leave the camps. 

Out of hunger, he said some people would cross illegally and risk being kicked out and sent back to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Choir director Esperance Kouka grew up in a musical family in the Republic of the Congo — the smaller western neighbor of the Democratic Republic of Congo — but was usually the one sitting in the corner listening.  

When Kouka was living in a war zone at 14, he turned to music.

“I had to experience war and all the atrocities that comes with war. And it’s in those really dark hours, because I almost got killed many times and just saw horrible things. And it’s in those dark hours that music just came back to me,” he said. “Because the music was really there for me, to uplift me.”

He used music as a therapy tool again when he taught orphans in the Republic of the Congo for six years.

Kouka’s dream was to share music with others. When he moved to Salem, he shared that vision with Jenny Barischoff in 2015.

Barischoff and her husband run Ariana House, which provides temporary housing to refugees.

When they started discussing the possibility of a choir, they scheduled a day to start practicing. That was in March and the choir has been practicing once a week since.

Uhuru Youth Choir’s first performance was at the World Beat Festival and recently they performed at a wedding. As each member of the bridal party was walking down the aisle, the choir broke out into clapping and cheering.

“But what you guys brought was such celebration and joy,” Barischoff told Lumona and Nely. “It made the wedding so special and everybody loved it.”

Next week, the choir is playing at an end of year celebration for One Big Family in Portland.

Kouka said the kids make him proud.

“It’s been less than a year and just to see from where we started and where we are today, just the little journey we’ve had so far,” he said. “Yeah it’s been really good.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.