Italy's New Gospel Choir, Whose Members Fled Boko Haram
The six Nigerian women had each risked their lives like so many crossing the Mediterranean. When they found each other in church in northern Italy, they discovered they had something else in common.
BORGOMANERO — Two months ago, they were desperately boarding boats along the Libyan coast to escape poverty and the revenge of Islamist terror group Boko Haram. Today they are "Dynamite," a gospel choir that in just two notes have the faithful in the northern Italian diocese of Novara hopping to their feet and clapping along.
Merrit, Sandra, Angela, Fabor, Victory and Sussex are Nigerian refugees who have emotional stories similar to those of so many migrants who arrive in Italy: Facing poverty, political or religious persecution, they fled their countries through the desert and paid $2,500 to cross the Mediterranean Sea in perilous conditions.
Arriving on the island of Lampedusa and in the Sicilian city of Ragusa, the six women were ultimately assigned to the town of Borgomanero, northwest of Milan. They were welcomed to a transitional housing refuge by volunteers of Mamre, an association that has dealt with disadvantaged and exploited women for 15 years.
Meeting on a new shore
The women all made their journeys alone and didn't know each other before making their way to Italy, as each hails from a different part of Nigeria. But when the volunteers arrived to pick them up, they began singing in the car. "They had beautiful voices, and singing for them has been a way of recovering their roots," explains one volunteer. "They are Christian and they sang many religious Nigerian songs, so we thought we'd let them sing in church."
Sussex, 30, is regarded as sort of the "mother" of the group. "We are like dynamite," she says. "We want to express our joy of life and thank God for giving us this opportunity. We do this by singing. We are alive, we're fine now, but in Nigeria there was the risk every day of being killed by Boko Haram."
So far their repertoire includes about 20 songs, and they have been performing in the churches around Borgomanero and Orta, and on the island of San Giulio for cloistered nuns.
Sandra is 19 years old and still has scars on her legs from her journey after a woman who offered to give her a ride to Libya in her Jeep had an accident in the desert. The woman died, and Sandra broke her leg. Despite the injury, she walked for three weeks to reach the border.
Merrit was a DJ in Nigeria, but with Boko Haram's arrival it became impossible to work. "Everything was risky," she says. "There I used to play Rihanna and Bruno Mars tracks, but here I have dedicated myself to religious songs. In Nigeria, I thought about disco, but here I sing about newfound freedom."
Fabor, 23, was a hairdresser in southern Nigeria. "It became impossible to work, and we lived in fear," she says, echoing her new friends. "In my country there is a regime incapable of providing security for the people."
Angela says that they have left behind not only the terror group but also an "unlivable" country. "We faced thirst, fear and gave our money to those who guaranteed our arrival to Europe," she says. "We saw the massacres in Libya, and we got on the boats without eating for five days."
The women don't like talking about the past. "Our new life begins here," says Victory. "We want jobs in Italy — we are learning the language — and we are taking courses in sewing and cooking."
When they start singing "Jesus, more of you," the faithful rise from the pews. For the young women, the choir may not be the job they'll need to make a new life in Europe. But they seem to need it just the same.