Rita Achiro sings about hope and peace because she can, and because so many others can’t.

Achiro spent three years living in refugee camps in Kenya before moving to Maine with her family about 20 years ago. As a teenager, she joined a Portland-based multicultural chorus called Pihcintu, singing with other girls and women who fled danger and despair in their homelands.

On Monday, Achiro and the other 33 members of Pihcintu will sing in front of the United Nations General Assembly at an event celebrating the adoption of the U.N.’s Global Compact on Refugees, which is being called a blueprint for helping refugees worldwide.

For Achiro, it’s a chance to say thank you, since the U.N. provided food and shelter for her family in refugee camps and arranged for their immigration to the United States. It’s also a chance to help the world remember that not every refugee’s story has ended the way hers has.

“We are basically the voice of the voiceless. There are many children now going through what I went through,” said Achiro, 28, whose family fled war-torn South Sudan. “Not everyone escapes war like I did.”

Anna Mwamba dances as Pihcintu rehearses last week for its performance Monday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The group is made up of 34 women and girls between the ages of 10 and 28 from 20 countries.

Pihcintu was formed in 2005 and is directed by Con Fullam, a longtime Maine musician and TV producer whose credits include writing “The Maine Christmas Song.” The group brings together women and girls who settled in Portland from other countries, including several war-torn nations, and gives them a voice for creative and personal expression via song.

The group currently has 34 members from 20 different countries from all over the world, including Africa, Asia and Europe. They range in age from 10 to 28. Some 300 girls and women have been in the group, whose name comes from a Passamaquoddy word that means “when he/she sings, his/her voice carries far,” Fullam said.

The group’s sound and mix of cultures have garnered national attention and high-profile opportunities over the years. In 2017, the group sang at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy. The group performs all over Maine as well.

Members have also sung before at the United Nations. In 2015, members performed outside of the U.N. as part of a celebration called “Under One Sky.”

Tjimetja Muriua sings with the Pihcintu chorus as they rehearse for their upcoming performance at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

But the performance scheduled for Monday is unique because it is part of a working session of the General Assembly and because Pihcintu will give the only musical performance, said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, head of the Global Communications Desk for the United Nations Refugee Agency. The group will sing to close the event, after several officials have spoken about the Global Compact on Refugees.

“It (the compact) will be the first time we have a whole-of-society approach including not just the U.N. and humanitarian actors in supporting refugees but also governments, development actors, private sector and host communities,” Ghedini-Williams wrote in an email to the Press Herald.

The United Nations is paying for the group’s trip, Fullam said. He isn’t sure yet what song Pihcintu will sing at the U.N., but that it would likely be “Light a Candle For Peace” by Shelley Murley. The group does a mix of originals and songs by other artists. But all the songs are about love and peace.

Those topics are important to the members, some of whom spent their childhoods hearing gunfire more often than song.

“I love singing with Pihcintu,” Achiro said. “Our message is all about uniting people.”

 

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