PORTLAND – Thirty voices from 12 different countries sang in unison.

The lyrics, “If we put our heads together. If we open up or minds. We will find a thousand answers. To the problems of our time,” echoed through the Root Cellar, on Washington Avenue.

Pihcintu, a Portland-based, all-female choir of refugees and immigrants, held a final rehearsal Wednesday as its members prepared to sing in the nation’s capitol next week at the “Bridges to a New Future” convention sponsored by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The office, which helps immigrants settle and adjust to life in the United States, will bring together public officials, advocates and refugee leaders from across the country to share information and collaborate on ways to address jobs, health care and other refugee issues.

Pihcintu was chosen to perform because of the office’s focus on aiding refugee women and because the group “uses music and friendship to heal past trauma,” said Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for HHS.

In addition to performing at the convention, Pihcintu will perform live for NBC and be interviewed by PBS and Voice of America, said Choir Director Con Fullam.

For most of the girls, it will be their first glimpse of Washington D.C..

“We want to represent a vision of immigrants through our voices,” said Ekhlas Ahmed, 20, who came to the United States from Sudan seven years ago. Ahmed will also speak at the convention.

“We want to educate people, especially the people who have power, about the difficulties we face in Portland. It is difficult to adjust here, leaving everything behind, even if it is for safety,” she said.

Ahmed was separated from her family, including her grandmother, who by Sudanese tradition, raised her. She escaped Sudan through Egypt for fear of the genocide in Darfur.

She said she fell in love with Portland at the first sight of snow outside her airplane window.

“But now I feel like my blood is back there (in Sudan). It is really hard to be here and know they are suffering every day,” she said of family members still in Sudan.

The Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project of Portland estimates Maine’s immigrant population to be over 55,000, or about 4 percent of the total state population.

Fullam calls his choir “the U.N. of Portland,” a reference to the United Nations, because it is composed of girls and young women from Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Vietnam, Cambodia, British West Indies, Kenya, Canada, and the United States.

Fullam said his vision for the choir came from his understanding of the plight of immigrants. His grandfather was forced to emigrate from Ireland to the United States, where he faced discrimination.

“A dynamic of being an immigrant is that you become threatening to those who are here. In that state of mind, people forget that they were also once an immigrant,” he said.

He formed the chorus six years ago to combat negative stereotypes about immigrants and to provide healing for the choir members.

“When they’re up there and they’re singing, all the troubles, woes and difficulties fly out the window with the notes,” he said.

The girls and women of Pihcintu range in age from 8 to 18 and are a sisterhood, Ahmed said. Older ones watch out for the young ones and disputes always dissolve once they’re on the stage.

The group has released three CDs and will be featured in Music for the World, a documentary film by Emmy Award-winning producer Patrice Samara.

At Wednesday’s practice in the Root Cellar, Fullam, a musician and songwriter, picked up his guitar and played “This Little Light of Mine.”

The choir swayed and clapped and sang, true to their name, Pihcintu, a word from Maine’s Passamaquoddy Indian language that means “When she sings, her voice carries far.” 

Staff Writer Colleen Stewart can be contacted at 791-6355 or at:

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