In Erie, Pennsylvania, one woman had an idea that led to something big. She was a folklorist who loved collecting and sharing songs of different cultures. One day she was thinking about the refugee women in her town when light bulbs started to go off.
The first light bulb involved curiosity about the songs the women brought with them. The second light bulb was about wondering if the women would share their songs with local children. The third light bulb was about how the women might be trained for preschool jobs incorporating music.
At PRI (Public Radio International), Erika Beras reports on Kelly Armor and what she accomplished through the Power of One. The story starts with Beras visiting a class run by Sudanese refugee Marta Sam.
“Marta Sam is surrounded by really energetic 4-year-olds. She’s at St. Martin’s Day Care in Erie, Pennsylvania, guiding the kids as they sing and dance.
“Sam sings in Arabic, then English. She takes the students through a Congolese song, followed by ‘Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed.’ The kids follow her cues, dancing and calling out their favorite songs. Sam is used to this.
“ ‘When they see me in the classroom they say, “Miss Marta can we do this? Miss Marta can we sing this? Miss Marta can we jump?” ‘ she says. ‘Yeah, I will jump with them and get silly like them — working with the kids you just get down in their level and just … mess with them.’
“Sam, 59, is a roving educator at St. Martin’s Day Care. She goes from room to room and sings lullabies from all over the world with the kids. Originally from South Sudan, she came to Erie 13 years ago as part of the first wave of thousands of refugees who have resettled in this small Rust Belt city.
“She worked at a plastics factory and started learning English. Then she heard she could get job training to work in day cares. In return she’d share the traditional songs she had sung to her children when they were young.
“It was just what she needed.
‘Oh, it changed my life very much. … I’m somebody now,’ she says.
“Sam works at St. Martin’s because of ‘Old Songs, New Opportunities,’ a program dreamed up by Kelly Armor, a folklorist and educator at the Erie Art Museum. Armor is from Erie, but spent time in the ’80s studying traditional song in Kenya and Tanzania. When she noticed refugees settling in Erie in recent years, she had an idea.
“ ‘Could it be that … there are refugee women [who] would love to work with small children? And could it be that they know lots of songs and they know how to use songs with kids?’ she wondered.
“It turned out they did, and in some cases the songs were all they bought to the US. That was the case for Victoria Angelo, who is also from South Sudan.
“ ‘I was not able to bring anything. No dishes, nothing, no [clothing],’ she says. ‘What I actually brought with me was the songs.’ …
More at PRI, here, where you also can listen to a lovely collection of songs.
Photo: Erika Beras
Marta Sam, who emigrated from South Sudan 13 years ago, sings with a classroom of four-year-olds.