As media outlets began increasing our awareness of escalating international conflicts, accounts of the challenges and hardships faced by refugees struck a deep nerve, and cause me to consider what I could do to serve and stand in solidarity with people experiencing this kind of suffering. After watching a broadcast at a conference in April 2016, I felt inspired to create a refugee choir. This was a daunting idea, as I did not know any refugees at that time and had no idea how to connect with refugee communities.
The first step was contacting Tacoma Community House, a 108-year-old organization that is consistently at the forefront of serving refugees, immigrants and longtime residents. We agreed to partner on a pilot project concert for Welcoming Week in September 2016. Welcoming Week is a series of events designed to promote inclusivity and celebrate the invaluable contributions made by immigrants and refugees. We rehearsed for five weeks and performed a three-song set at two events, including a Citizenship Day ceremony at which nearly a hundred new American citizens were sworn in. The initial pilot project was well received and taught us a lot about the logistical needs of launching a full program in January 2017.
We held our first rehearsal as the Tacoma Refugee Choir on January 17, 2017 at Tacoma Community College, with 22 people in attendance. The energy in the room was electric and full of hope. The repertoire included “This Little Light of Mine,” “This is My Wish,” “Shine Your Way” and “When You Believe,” and each piece focused on the central theme of shining our light and maintaining hope.
When we began this project, we had no inkling of the executive order that would come down just ten days later banning refugees and travel from mostly Muslim countries. While this group maintains a non-partisan stance and welcomes members with a variety of political affiliations, national issues galvanized our purpose and emphasized the need to create safe and inclusive spaces that value the contributions of ALL.
What began as a small community choir has expanded to an effort to inspire and nurture compassion both within the city of Tacoma and beyond. We’ve since welcomed over 300 people from 37 countries to a rehearsal and so many of them have become like family. Every rehearsal lifts our spirits and reminds us why it’s worth the sacrifices and hard work to sustain each other and come together each week. We’ve been able to mourn with members as they’ve grieved over being unable to reunite with family or return home for a mother’s funeral. We’ve lifted one another as we have struggled with confidence and faced the challenges of life. We’ve helped young college students study for tests and write papers, search for jobs and housing and affirmed that we will be a friend while awaiting a deportation hearing. More than anything else, the choir has been a place where love flows in abundance and when we finish rehearsal on Tuesday nights, we feel ready to press on for another week.
At a time when many Americans are motivated by and responding to fear, we are inspired with hope as we sing and feel empowered to use our voices for good both within the walls of our rehearsals and in the community. We hope that uniting our voices will create a collective, uplifting voice even more powerful than the sum of its parts.