Sara, Prise and Sunday, from left, are members of the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus, founded in 2004 by Con Fullam, at right. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — In forming the Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus in 2004, Con Fullam wanted to help the many young refugees immigrating to the Portland area maintain the identities and cultures they’d left behind in their native countries.

“The first thing you lose when you come to a new country is your voice, literally,” due to the new language, culture and traditions that are learned, said the Portland musician, producer and songwriter. “So I formed a chorus to give young women their voices back.”

“We did get our voices back,” said Prise, a young woman from the refugee camps in Kenya, in an interview alongside Fullam, Sara from South Sudan and Sunday from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Because of concerns over the volatile nature of the immigration debate, Fullam asked that the singers’ last names be withheld.

The Portland-based Pihcintu Multicultural Chorus has 34 members from 22 countries. Contibuted

The three Deering High School seniors are members of the 33-member chorus, whose singers come from 22 countries and range in age from 10 to 23. Pihcintu – pronounced “pea-sin-two” – is a Passamaquoddy word meaning “when she sings, her voice carries far.”

The chorus performs at the Congregational Church in Cumberland, 282 Main St., at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25.

Jim Nga, the church’s music director, said the free concert is “especially important because it demonstrates and celebrates the diversity and openness of our church in welcoming refugees and immigrants to our state of Maine.”

“This group is a family,” Sara said. “We really are like sisters; we are really close, and singing all together brings happiness back and kind of dissolves everything that happened.”

As stated at pihcintu.org, the women were born into war, famine, political turmoil and bloodshed – worlds of tragedy, danger and violence that are likely unthinkable to many Maine youth.

But the community that is Pihcintu has helped heal some of those wounds.

Sunday said she was inspired to join after seeing the joy its members felt from being together. Told when she was young that she had an “awful” voice, after joining Pihcintu she found the opposite to be true. Compliments from Fullam “make me feel good about myself.”

Prise sang in her church back in Kenya, “and music has always been my outlet, the way I release my stress and feelings,” she said. “Joining Pihcintu, I’m sharing my stories with others, and also finding who I am and meeting other people that have been through similar experiences.”

“Seeing us onstage and being proud and singing our voices … we’re giving them hope (that) there is a future for them,” Sara said.

Prise said she hopes the music also brings peace to the listeners, as well as a greater understanding.

“For those people who question why immigrants come to America, to teach them (that) we come here for a reason. We don’t come here because it’s beautiful and because we can, we come here because we have to in order to survive,” she said.

Pihcintu, which does 30-40 shows a year, in 2019 performed at the inauguration of Gov. Janet Mills alongside Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary; at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; with the Chicago Children’s Choir; and with The Voices from the Foyle, a Northern Ireland chorus. Performances with the Portland Symphony Orchestra are planned this year for July 4 and Oct. 17-18.

A YouTube video of Pihcintu’s performance of “Somewhere” – produced to raise funds and awareness for the United Nations Refugee Agency – is approaching 24,000 views. The group, also involved in efforts related to climate change and world hunger, recently released the CD “One Journey Many Roads,” which is available on a variety of digital platforms and offers a mix of musical genres.

Fullam writes a lot of Pihcintu’s songs, but the members decide which to sing.

A mini-documentary on the chorus is to be produced in March by Univision, the largest Spanish broadcaster in the U.S. The State Legislature is to declare a day of recognition for the chorus at the filming and Mills will sign a proclamation congratulating the group for its contributions to Maine and the world, Fullam said.

Starting with just four members, Pihcintu has had 300 in the course of nearly 16 years – transportation is key in being able to join – and all of those who have participated for at least two years have graduated high school, while 85% have continued to post-secondary education, Fullam said.

All three women are college bound; Prise plans to study law, Sunday psychology and Sara criminology.

“Our success is showing (people) that we do have a future and we can do something big,” Sara said. “… It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can still succeed in life.”

The group often brings people to tears: “People walk out saying ‘I was laughing and crying,'” Fullam said. They were moved, he added, by seeing “how these young women have been able to conquer astounding barriers in their lives. Nobody can really understand what it’s like to live in a refugee camp unless you’ve been there.”

“These kids never, ever think that they have had problems,” Fullam said. “… These kids never see themselves as victims. They see themselves as conquerors.”

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