Newcomers to Quebec City turn pop stars in viral video clip

One of the summer’s biggest earworms — a bright, punchy dance tune with an African beat — was composed by a group of Quebec City refugee students who sing about identity, maple syrup and missing home.

Lyrics reflect joys, surprises and homesickness of kids who leave behind their countries for Canada

Twins David and Rachel Baraka starred in the video clip for the song 'Je suis là,' which they co-wrote with their classmates at Saint-Malo elementary school in Quebec City. (Julia Page/CBC)

Clever lyrics, a catchy chorus, a punchy Afro beat, even their own signature choreography — Je suis là has all the makings of a summer hit.

The creators are not top music executives in some far-off Hollywood office. They are a group of 17 refugee students between the ages of nine and 12 from Quebec City's Saint-Malo elementary school.

The class launched the video clip for Je suis là at the end of June, expecting to get "100 views, tops," according to their teacher Nancy Fall, who is behind the project.

Instead, in its first two weeks, it's been seen more than 12,400 times on YouTube.

One of those views came from Rachel Baraka's relatives, thousands of kilometres away, in Congo.

"They cried because they're so proud," said Rachel, one of the students who co-wrote the song and performed in the video clip. 

Rachel and her twin brother David left Congo in 2016 with their mother. When they landed in Quebec, they were stunned to see "enormous houses," all covered in white. 

"I didn't even realize snow fell from the sky!" said David.

The siblings spoke three languages — but not French — when they were enrolled in Saint-Malo's integration class, which helps new students learn French and adjust to the Quebec curriculum.

Their teacher said seeing their progress over the past three years has been "crazy." The twins, now 12, will be moving into the regular school program in September.

"I still can't watch the video without crying," said Fall."It really touched me."

The song grapples with the conflicted feelings students at Saint-Malo have experienced, leaving behind their country and their friends in countries as farflung as Syria, Tanzania, Thailand and Ukraine.

Fall said David explained to her his vision for the song, reflecting the ups and downs he's felt since moving to Quebec.

My heart gets bigger, like a ball that bounces, David sings in the video clip, proudly kicking around his cherished soccer ball.

We are here

T'es-tu d'ici? T'es-tu de là? the song asks.

Are you from here? Are you from there?

That question of identity is one Fall tackles with her students through workshops and roundtable discussions in her classroom, exploring their sense of belonging and experiences with separation, war and death.

Rachel Baraka said her favourite part of making the video clip was filming the sequences in the woods with her classmates, dressed in full winter attire at the end of May. (École St-Malo)

Fall reached out to Quebec City artists who helped build a soundtrack to carry the students' words.

My feet are here, My mind is back there, My heart gets bigger, Here I am.- Chorus for Je Suis Là

Despite busy schedules and record launches, artists like King Abid, KNLO, Caroline Dupont and Ludovic Dubé went into Fall's class several times over a four-month period to meet with students and work on musical arrangements and studio recordings.

"But the real core of the project," said Fall, was the students themselves.

Local filmmaker Jepherson Guillaume then filmed a video clip in May, capturing the kids' skilled dance moves — what Fall described as "part of their DNA." 

"Sometimes I'm writing on the board, and when I turn around there's someone dancing, so it's [there] all the time," she said.

Do I have a place here? YES

The students were also the ones who came up with the idea of having a child walking through the woods with a small bag, singing J'arrive au Canada, kessé ça? What is this?

Fall said they wanted to reflect their own path, filled with uncertainty.

"We have to show that we come here with small suitcases," she said they told her. Some students didn't even know what country would accept their refugee claim and where they would be going, until the very last moment.

Fall wanted the song to speak for itself, becoming part of the fabric of the sometimes inflammatory debate surrounding immigration and refugees in Quebec.

"It was important for me that people see what is happening inside my class," said Fall. "All I see is beauty."

David and Rachel Baraka have only nice things to say about their teacher Nancy Fall, who initiated the project for the 'Je suis là' video clip. (Julia Page/CBC)

While she is the first person many refugee children meet when they enter the school system, Fall said the students themselves are also key to helping others feel welcome.

"I have Catholic kids, Muslim kids, and they just bond together — for them there's no wall between people — and I want that message to be carried in that video clip."

Twelve-year-old Rachel also hopes that spirit comes through.

"I'm proud of my class. We're fantastic. We welcome newcomers, and we're nice with everyone."


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