Breaking barriers through song

They’ve fled violence, war and poverty in their homeland, but a world away in Melbourne’s West, a singing program is helping asylum seekers settle into a new life.

Every Monday a group of Tamil mothers and their children come together at Sunshine Primary School for a playgroup with a difference.
Their English may be limited and their lives have been turned upside down but the program, organised by not-for-profit organisations The Song Room and VICSEG, is breaking down barriers, connecting families and is helping children and their parents learn English.
Sutha Kunalan, who facilitates the program says many of the women and their children have recently been released from detention centres and are alone in a new city.
“Because of the language barrier a lot of the women are hesitant to go outside by themselves, which can be really isolating,” says Sutha. 
The mums and their children get together for two hours a week for a range of activities including play, craft and listening to guest speakers but the most powerful part is singing together.
“The first day when mums come in they often hesitate to sing or dance but within a few weeks they become family,” says Sutha. 
“Singing is an amazing way to improve the language,” says Sutha. “The songs have numbers and letters from the alphabet and it really helps them.”
It’s also an opportunity to keep their culture and traditions alive by sharing songs they grew up with.
children playing and signing with teacher
“We are singing Tamil songs as well, that brings their old memories back and helps to keep childhood memories alive,” says Sutha. “Through the songs we are talking about all the culture we are missing.”

The Song Room’s Director of Programs Deborah Nicolson says many of the children involved are dealing with complex issues. But for two hours a week, they can just be kids.
“We’re working with kids who have faced trauma and many difficulties, many have lost family and friends and left relatives behind and seen all sorts of things that we could never imagine and it’s the same for their parents in this group,” says Deborah.
“We’re giving them a safe place to be children, to be themselves and not have labels on them of being an asylum seeker or a non-English speaker,” she says.
Many of the families involved have made lasting friendships and have started sharing skills and trading things they have made.
“Some mum’s have started talking about ideas to start small businesses like making cakes or dresses,” says Sutha.
For the children, it’s hoped that learning through song and dance will become an important part of their life.
“The arts can be a great way of engaging students not just in learning, but in life,” says Deborah.


The Song Room is a national not-for-profit organisation that helps the most disadvantaged children through high-quality music and arts programs, working with schools across the country. Its programs have proven to lift the academic performance, school attendance, social-emotional wellbeing and community involvement of Australian school children.

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