The heck with the political dissonance. Let’s talk harmony.

Friday morning, while Maine careened toward a government shutdown and President Trump drowned in yet another misogynistic Tweet storm, 24 young women got on a chartered bus in Portland bound for Washington, D.C.

No, they’re not there to march or to chant or to protest all that’s wrong with the world in this summer of our discontent.

They’re there to sing.

“It gives me serenity, it gives me peace. Singing is fun to me,” Nyawal Lia said last week outside the community room of the Riverton Park housing complex in Portland.

Nyawal, 23, is one of the “elders” of Pihcintu – a girls chorus made up almost entirely of refugee immigrants who represent Maine at its finest.


They’ve sung from Harpswell on the coast to Wilton in the western mountains.

They’ve sung for small church groups, for NBC’s “Today” show and for the United Nations’ World Refugee Day.

In a world beset by vitriol and violence that many of them have experienced firsthand, they sing not of war, but of peace, not of enmity, but of love, not of what divides us, but of the common ground we all share.

This holiday weekend, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts celebrates the centennial of President John F. Kennedy’s birth with “2017 Serenade! Washington D.C. Choral Festival.” The assembly of choruses from more than a dozen countries commemorates JFK’s legacy as creator of the Peace Corps.

Estella Mutoni, 15, left, Kethia Ishami, 15, and Doki Yanga, 16, rehearse with the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus in Portland. The chorus, which is made up of young singers from immigrant families, is performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this weekend.

Pihcintu – Passamaquoddy Indian for “when she sings, her voice carries far” – will represent the United States.

It all started back in 2005, the brainchild of Con Fullam, an accomplished musician, composer and producer known in these parts for “The Maine Christmas Song” and, more recently, the TV show “Greenlight Maine.”


His goal: Gather a group of girls, many newly arrived here in Maine from the most war-torn corners of the world, and give them back the one thing they so often lose along the way: their voices.

Brenda Viola, 17, soon to be a senior at Deering High School in Portland, joined the chorus in January. She grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya, where school was nonexistent and a good day was defined as a single a cup of rice.

Yet through it all, Brenda loved to sing. She still does.

“Pihcintu just reminds me of back home, where I’m from, where I lived,” Brenda said during a break from rehearsal last week. So much so, she confided, that she’ll sometimes find herself blinking back tears as she wraps herself in the songs – the majority of which are composed and written by Fullam.

Con Fullam directs the group at a rehearsal last week.

“It is emotional,” Brenda said. “Every time I remember, it just makes me want to cry. It’s like wow, I am here, but how about my friends who are living back there?”

It’s a common refrain: Joy at being alive, worry for loved ones left behind and an unspoken assurance that here, you are safe.


Here, you can laugh, cry and above all, as Brenda put it, “send a powerful message” about finding refuge in a strange place, about finding a new home.

For founder and director Fullam, 69, it’s long been a labor of love. While Pihcintu has attracted generous financial help in recent years from the Davis Family Foundation, The Lunder Foundation and Wex Inc., to name a few, the chorus still hinges on one man’s lasting dedication, infinite patience and faith that when it truly counts, these girls know how to deliver.

“I’ve never had a good rehearsal with them,” Fullam said dryly after last week’s chaotic run-through. “And we’ve only had one bad performance.”

Once a week, he hops into a small Portland Housing Authority bus and makes the rounds among the city’s subsidized housing projects and other low-income neighborhoods. Guitar at his side, he picks up his young singers, ferries them to rehearsal at Riverton Park and then drops them back home.

“Without that bus, it never would have started because I have always and forever had a massive problem with transportation,” he said. “These kids don’t have parents like those in the suburbs who drive their kids to soccer. I have a lot of parent support in terms of the chorus, but these are refugee people. They’re just trying to survive.”

Fullam estimates that since Pihcintu’s founding, more than 200 girls have cycled through the chorus. Some stay a few years; others never leave.


Nyawal Lia, now a senior majoring in political science at the University of Southern Maine, joined Pihcintu as a shy sixth-grader.

Way back then, she said, it was all about the singing. But then one day, Fullam invited her to speak to a church group in Waterville about her childhood – first in South Sudan and then in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

She told the audience of the genocide sweeping her homeland, of a world few Mainers could imagine. She will forever be grateful for Fullam’s gentle prodding.

“I feel like I’ve known Con my whole life. He’s the first person who has ever given me the opportunity to speak up,” said Nyawal, who will spend this summer as a supervisor for the Muskie School of Public Service’s “Gateway to Opportunity,” a mentoring program for high school students.

“It fits perfectly,” she said. “It’s no longer just singing. It’s advocacy.”

Thirteen-year-old Sandy Truong, above, sings a solo part while rehearsing with the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus in Portland. At left, Con Fullam directs the group at a rehearsal last week.

Ekhlas Ahemed, 25, originally from Sudan’s Darfur region, joined Pihcintu when she was 17 and a student at Casco Bay High School. Now, with a degree from USM in sociology and international studies, she’s back at her old high school teaching English as a Second Language and overseeing “Make It Happen,” an after-school tutorial and college-prep program for some 180 multicultural and multilingual students.


Ekhlas also keeps an eye on the younger girls – including a few of her students – in Pihcintu.

She’s stayed with the chorus this long, she said, because it “tells my life story.”

How so?

“A lot of the songs we sing represent emotion, represent the stories where we come from, the pain that we suffered,” she explained. “So, for me, the second I start singing, my head right away goes back home and to missing all of my friends, to the memories. And then we come back and sing a different song and I remember all the peace and beauty that we live in here in Portland, Maine.”

Pihcintu’s itinerary this weekend includes three performances – an appearance on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Saturday (where they first performed in 2014), a concert in Baltimore on Sunday, and, on Monday, the grand finale on the main stage of the Kennedy Center’s majestic concert hall.

Along the way, Fullam undoubtedly will be asked to list the various countries of origin for these world-class singers.


His reply: “Here we go: Iraq, Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador, Burundi, North Sudan, South Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia …”

If the mere mention of such places makes you nervous in these turbulent times, relax. You’re not listening hard enough.

Shy, confident or somewhere in between, these girls and young women are our neighbors now.

And as they ascend to one of the nation’s biggest stages, they’re doing Maine proud.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

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