Anna Atkinson presents a refugee sponsorship fundraiser concert at St. Andrew’s United Church on Saturday, July 14. (Photo courtesy Marjie Callaghan)

Nanaimo singer Anna Atkinson presenting refugee sponsorship fundraiser concert

Proceeds from concert at St. Andrew’s United Church to go towards sponsoring Syrian family

Anna Atkinson has a personal reaction when she hears about people displaced by war in Syria.

That’s because the Celtic singer and Vancouver Island University English professor’s family has a history of leaving homeland and hardship behind and coming to Canada.

“We could talk about Canada – apart from our indigenous people who are very gracious to us here – as a nation of immigrants, but a lot of what we call immigrants historically would have been more like refugees and my own family on both sides is no exception,” she said.

Atkinson’s mother’s family left Ireland during the potato famine, while on her father’s side her grandmother escaped revolutionary Russia and other relatives came to Canada after being imprisoned by the Japanese in the Second World War.

So when Anas Ayash, a government-sponsored Syrian refugee now living in Nanaimo, spoke at Atkinson’s church about his brother Amar’s family still living as refugees in Dubai, she was motivated to help. She joined the Ayash Refugee Sponsorship Group with members of Cedar and St. Andrew’s United Churches. The group needs to raise $20,000 to bring Amar, his wife and two young daughters to Canada, and another $15,000 to set them up for their first year.

Atkinson is lending her musical talent to the cause. She is presenting a fundraising concert, titled Far Across the Water, at St. Andrew’s United Church on Saturday, July 14. She said she’s hoping to raise $4,000 that night.

She said the title of the show is a reference to the Celtic diaspora.

“Whether they were going to Europe or whether they were coming to the Americas, it’s always far across the water that they have to go if they were leaving the situation they were in to go to something that they felt would be better,” Atkinson explained.

“So Celtic and even English songs about homecoming are always really, really deeply felt and that continues to this day. Some of the songs that I’ll be singing are quite modern. They’re by Scottish and Irish and Nova Scotian songwriters and they write into that Celtic tradition.”

Atkinson will be joined by Brian Bonnell on Irish pennywhistle, Robert Pepper-Smith on Irish bouzouki and vocalists Toni Smith, Hope Leith and Elisabeth Strain. While the circumstances of the concert may seem sad to some, Atkinson said she feels excited and hopeful.

“The Celts are famous for looking at a tragic situation and then writing a beautiful song and then writing a fast, sometimes quite angry song and then writing a funny song,” she said.

“So there’ll be rollicking choruses and sing-alongs and beautiful harmonies and melodies. It’s taking a situation that could be tragic and making it into something that has a happy ending and is beautiful. It’s what the Celts do best.”

WHAT’S ON … Anna Atkinson presents Far Across the Water, a refugee sponsorship fundraiser concert, at St. Andrew’s United Church on Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. $20 admission. For tickets contact Anna Atkinson at 250-327-2247 or

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