Singing out for war’s youngest victims

First, there are the children Mary Kay McNeil sings with: kids in Seattle schools and in choirs who infuse their own ideas into the lyrics of songs about peace and friendship.

And now there are the children that the choirs will sing for: among them, Abdul Hakeem Ismael, age 7, and Alaa’ Khalid Hamida, age 3.

Abdul was asleep when mortar rounds rained fire on his home in Fallujah killing his 2-month-old sister and injuring his mom and older siblings.

The boy needs a prosthetic eye, skin grafts and a replacement for the missing part of his jaw that now prevents him from swallowing or chewing his food.

Alaa’s mother was blinded and five of her brothers, sisters and cousins were killed when bombs exploded in Iraq, imbedding her legs, tummy and chest with shrapnel. She needs surgery to save her sight and to extract metal fragments from her leg.

Much of the needed money for Abdul’s flight to the United States and his medical care has been raised by an all-volunteer organization called No More Victims. But Alaa’ and others like her still need funds, transportation and, most of all, friends.

So, on Sunday, Oct. 16, from 2 to 4 p.m. at Seattle First Baptist Church, six choral groups including Children Sing for Peace will raise their voices in the hope of raising some money to help.

When I first met McNeil in May of 2002, the cheerful woman with the ready smile was encircled by enthused young singers in a room at Olympic View Elementary School.

Sixteen months later, she was gone.

By then the war in Iraq had been on for six months and it seems that a parent had been pressuring the School Board which, in turn, had pressured the principal about a certain song. Never mind that the song, “We Are Children of Peace,” was composed long before war began in Iraq. And that its sentiment was for peace in every country of the world. And that the “objectionable” line, “we don’t want war anymore,” was contributed by a 7-year-old. In fact, most of the songs McNeil’s kids sing are collaborative compositions.

When they wrote it, the kids told McNeil what they wanted to say to children in places like Afghanistan. What their hopes were for those kids. And what they wanted to say about themselves.

It seemed simple and innocent enough. But, by the spring of 2003, the division between people who were “for” and “against” the war in Iraq had sharpened to a cutting edge, and McNeil’s music program at Olympic View was sliced.

She could stay, she was told, and some songs could be about peace so long as they also gave the “other side” and weren’t against war.

“What could the other side of peace be?” McNeil asked me last week. “I was not prepared to sing anything pro-war.”

The music began after 9/11 as a way to help kids deal with the shocking events they saw on TV. It was a way to connect with other children around the world.

“The students were so confused,” McNeil said.

It started with Afghanistan because kids in her classes knew about the bombing there and the subject kept spilling out in their questions. Then topics spread in lyrics about children all around the world.

“Everything we sing has to be true,” McNeil said. Most of it is based on the kids’ own logic, their love, their desire to be friends, and even their hope of encouraging grown-ups not to be enemies. (Now there’s a treasonous idea.)

McNeil is still teaching today. She’s an artist in residence at Salmon Bay Elementary, at AE2 and in University Child Development School’s after-school choir three days a week. She also teaches choir at University Coop and at El Centro de La Raza. And she runs the Children of Peace Choir which performs intergenerational concerts with groups like the Raging Grannies. And, each summer, McNeil teaches at the Middle East Peace Camp at the Seattle home of Kay Bullitt.

She covers a mix of public and private venues. And McNeil knows that, especially in school settings, there is always the risk that the word “peace” will clink on someone’s ear as code for “political.” Always the risk that another parent will object.

“I do walk a line but the line is really within me now,” McNeil said. “It’s a matter of integrity for me. If I feel I’ve gone over (the line), I immediately move to rectify the situation. If I feel I’m within my integrity, I feel pretty sturdy in my boots. It seems to have less to do with what others want from me these days.”

This Sunday is also National Boss Day.

And, for McNeil, this Sunday will be a kind of holiday, too, but not one that has anything to do with being bossed.

She hopes people, whatever their age, will come to the free Sunday concert to celebrate the idea of peace. Maybe they’ll contribute to the cause of helping severely injured kids. Maybe they’ll stay to sing along in the spirit of reaching out in friendship. It’s still OK to say that, isn’t it?

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