- Associated Press - Monday, March 21, 2016

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Amrita Magar shyly and frequently apologized for her broken English.

But the Bhutanese refugee from Nepal had no problem getting her message across to children. They ran to her like they run to an ice-cream delivery truck on a stifling June day.

“All the kids understand,” she said, a huge smile breaking across her face.

The children understand Magar because she is speaking the universal language of music and song — and having fun while doing it.

Magar, 37, is one of 65 graduates of Old Songs, New Opportunities, an Erie Art Museum program that teaches refugees who now live in Erie to work in early learning centers and use traditional children’s songs from their culture as part of their work.



The program helps keep those songs — a type of folk art — alive, and exposes children to new experiences, people and cultures, said Kelly Armor, director of the program.

It’s also about replicating a piece of the refugees’ culture here in Erie.

Armor talks about how villagers might gather under a full moon — a bright night is a treat when you don’t have electricity — to sing and dance. That doesn’t happen here.

“Many cultures have intense, rich folk art traditions,” Armor said. “When refugees (are forced to leave their home countries), those often get left behind because folk art is completely tied to how you live your life.”

After four months of training and, then, graduation in March 2014, Magar started working with children in the YMCA of Fairview Elementary Childcare Enrichment Program in September 2015. On a recent day at Fairview, Magar and a small group of children gathered on a rug to sing songs.

The first was a Nepalese song about a cat chasing a mouse, to keep the mouse from chewing holes in clothing and stealing milk. Magar sang it first in Nepali, then in a rough translation to English.

It’s a way to connect with the children — and her country.

“I like singing our song because we remember our country,” she said. “My teacher teach me that song at my school.”

The program exposes the children here in this mostly white suburban school district to people and cultures they might not otherwise have known, said Kevin Salem, the school-age coordinator for the YMCA of Fairview Elementary. They hear foreign words, hear about a different way of life.

“A culture of diversity is huge, especially being out here in rural Erie County,” Salem said.

“It really brings a huge impact to the children. The children go home and talk about how they love Miss Amrita.”

The overall goal is to broaden children’s perspectives “so they’re open to other cultures,” Salem said.

To that end, the program has experimented with different foods for after-school snack, like hummus and feta cheese.

“That’s certainly different, something that kids don’t get normally,” Salem said. “It’s broadening their expectations beyond chicken nuggets.”

After a few rounds of cat-and-mouse that had the children crawling on their knees after each other and collapsing in fits of giggles, the group sang an African song about a bridge, holding their hands high above their heads to form a bridge with a partner. Finally, an only-in-America moment: When Magar asked the children to sing, the whole group broke out in the anthem of their age — “Let it Go,” from Disney’s “Frozen.”

The kids like Magar because she’s fun. She plays games. She helps them up when they fall down. It doesn’t matter that her native language is different from theirs.

“She can tell us new things,” said Cadence Gannoe, a 9-year-old third-grader.

Ask them what they think Nepal is like, and they draw off what they know.

“You know how our Barbies are tan?” 7-year-old Sofia Trudnowski asks. “Their Barbies might be brown.”

The next day, another refugee and graduate of Old Songs, New Opportunities, Michou Tshiala, was at the Eastside YMCA in Harborcreek Township. As little 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds watched, the Congolese refugee from Zambia balanced a toy car seat on her head. She was showing them how women in her country carry things.

“I put something on my head, I can walk for miles,” Tshiala said. “In America, you start driving at 16. In Africa, it’s not the same.”

The children practiced balancing tissue boxes on their heads before Tshiala led them in song.

“She’s able to educate them in a culture I can’t,” supervisor Missy Fuller said. “I think it’s a great addition to our program.”

When Tshiala speaks or sings, the preschoolers listen, Fuller said.

“They’re very enthralled with her experiences because they’re so different from theirs.”

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Online:

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com

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