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Student refugees share stories through song

Photo: Erin Hassanzadeh

On Monday night, Drake’s Bulldog Theater was filled with the soulful roar of a Tanzanian refugee choir that was founded by one of the university’s own students.

The Principal Financial Group Center for Global Citizenship and the Drake University School of Education brought the Striving for Eternal Life choir onto campus to share its story and talent.

The SFEL consists of 16 student refugees from Burundi, Africa, one of the top 10 poorest countries in the world. The choir members have spent up to 11 years in African refugee camps.

The students arrived in the United States around four years ago and began to attend Des Moines schools with no background in English.

The group’s creator, Vincent Niyokwizera, assembled family and other refugees to form the Des Moines based group in 2009.

The SFEL choir is definitely one of distinction. None of its members are able to read music. The group performs soulful reggae music with gospel flair. Its songs are performed in Swahili. The choir’s youngest member is 10 years old and the choreographer is only 13 years old. The pianist had never played an instrument before arriving in America four years ago.

The choir consists of one elementary school student, two junior high school students, four high school students, five students attending Des Moines Area Community College, one student attending Grand View, one Drake student, one student who will attend Drake and six who have graduated high school. Two of the group’s members are working full time at a meatpacking plant.

Niyokwizera, a senior actuarial science major, is an active leader in the group.  Although he is a husband, a father and a student, he is the group’s song writer and produced the group’s music video DVD. Niyokwizera came to the United States three years ago from Burundi. In Monday’s performance Niyokwizera described the 11 years he spent in a refugee camp.

“I went to high school in the camps,” he said. “If you miss a question they would beat you. We didn’t have libraries where you could go to study. We would go to trees and go under to study.”

The choir donned bright orange shirts, green bottoms and huge smiles for the performance. The musical backup came from a single electronic keyboard.

Most of the songs are written about the members’ experiences in African refugee camps and how their faith has guided them throughout their journeys.

The audience was full of grinning faces and tapping feet as the soulful lyrics added an emotionally intense element to the performance.

“God will restore the paradise that was lost” was one line from a song.

Niyokwizera explained to the audience the meaning of one SFEL song.

“This song is about being patient,” he said. “Whatever you are going through right now just be patient, we will have our time to be free. Whatever you’re going through right now is for you to overcome.”

Drake senior Courtney King was one of 150 attendees at the choir’s performance.

“My favorite part was their stories and their smiles,” King said.

Between songs, the SFEL students discussed the adjustments they faced when moving to the United States.

“The first time I went to school, I had no hair,” one female member of the choir said. “Students laughed at me, like, calling me a boy. In Africa, if you have long hair that means you are rich.”

Fayiness Uwezo is the youngest member of the SFEL choir at just 10 years old. She attends a Des Moines elementary school and has lived in America for four years. She lives with her parents and seven siblings.

“I like when we dance,” Uwezo said. “We’re all friends. We practice five days a week, it’s like two hours a day at my house in the basement.”

Linda Crose is the SFEL manager.

“Our mission is to get our music into Africa,” Crose said.

The group is finishing its second CD that will be released in October.  Their debut album, “Umusi! Umwe!” is available on the SFEL website. Member bios and performance dates are also available on the website. The group has four singles available on iTunes, and they can also be found on Amazon.

“They’ve taught me patience,” Crose said. “Their courage gives me strength. To me, their music is so powerful.”


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