St. Paul residents Tom Surprenant and Jeanne Junge started Songs of Hope in 1991 with the vision of bringing together children from around the globe for a one-time musical collaboration. Now, Songs of Hope is an annual six-week summer music camp, and this year, four children from Iraq are among the 45 that will rehearse and perform international music and dance.
“We were inspired by our own travel experiences,” Surprenant said. “We thought, what if the first experience living and working with a bunch of people from a bunch of different countries happened when you were 11 years old? Would it inform all the choices you made in your life?”
The program brings children 10 and older from more than a dozen countries, such as China, Guatemala, Italy and Israel to the University of St. Thomas. The group rehearses for three weeks before going on an 18-day tour across Minnesota.
“We wanted to bring to audiences a sense of what people are really like,” Surprenant said
The group has been trying to make connections with youth from an Islamic country since the start, and especially after the Sept. 11 attacks. They are excited to have children from Iraq this year, as are the other participants.
“With the U.S. invasion of Iraq … it’s been in the national news, so for them to meet Iraqi kids, it’s something that they’ll take home and talk about,” Junge said.
the Iraqi students was Kamil, 13, of Baghdad. He was excited to visit the U.S. and meet kids from other countries. For him, the hardest part is the language, but he’s learning quickly.St. Paul City Council member Melvin Carter, who has been the choral director for the organization since 2007, said the Iraqi delegates give participants and audiences a chance to learn about Iraq from something other than the news.
“Hopefully, it’s a reminder to all of us and all of our children that there’s more to the world than the headlines we get,” he said.
It’s important to remember respect goes both ways when meeting students from other countries, said Ege, a 13-year-old from Turkey. It is the second year for Ege at the camp, which would not let students give their last names for this report.
After his first-year experience, it was difficult for him to explain his friendships with Israeli kids he had met in the program to family and friends back home because of misconceptions, Ege said.
“I couldn’t believe what I heard,” he said of those conversations back home. “We should not be racist, because judgment brings racism and we should be peaceful.”
For Surprenant, Junge and the staff, the easiest part is the kids interacting and getting along with each other. The hardest part? The language. Songs of Hope doesn’t require the children to speak English — and often they only know what they have learned from movies and music.
Songs of Hope shows kids the differences in the world and how to live with those differences, said Alessandro, a 17-year-old former participant and current staff member.
“It teaches it because you live it,” he said. “It’s something you can’t achieve in any other summer camp.”
This year’s excitement over the delegates from Iraq have reminded the founders what their program is all about — learning about the differences that exist in the world and learning how to learn from them.