As media outlets began increasing our awareness of escalating international conflicts last spring, accounts of the challenges and hardships faced by refugees struck a deep nerve in my heart, and I found myself wondering what I could do to serve and stand in solidarity with people experiencing this kind of suffering. I am not independently wealthy (after all, I am a music teacher), and I did not at the time know any refugees. I recognized that I needed to expand my circle and get more involved… but how?
I thought about volunteering with an organization but had a nagging feeling that there was a better way of using my talents to make an impact. After watching a broadcast at a conference, I ultimately felt inspired to create a refugee choir. This was a daunting idea, as I had no idea how to connect with refugee communities and, despite my long musical career, had never founded a community choir. These doubts and questions almost stopped me from taking the first step.
I contacted Tacoma Community House, a 107-year-old organization that is consistently at the forefront of welcoming people to Tacoma and serving refugees, immigrants and longtime residents through English Language Acquisition (ELA) and citizenship classes, employment assistance and advocacy. 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 spent the fall building connections with area organizations with similar missions, striving to understand the challenges of those we wished to serve and writing grants for funding.
We finally held our first rehearsal 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.
Our greatest challenge so far has been building a widely diverse musical community and reaching out to people through as many avenues as possible. Two evening ESL classes joined us for our second rehearsal and our numbers swelled to almost 80 singers. It was a moving experience for all present to be part of such a large, diverse group singing “Peace on Earth.” At the break, people took selfies together and had vibrant conversations with new friends, appreciating the opportunity to engage in multilingual discussions and meet people with incredibly diverse perspectives and experiences. It was a magical moment that renewed our determination to fulfill our vision. We continue to grow and welcome new members each week.
When we began this project, we had no inkling of the executive order that would come down on January 27, 2017. While this group strives to maintain a non-partisan stance and welcomes members with a variety of political affiliations, national issues have certainly assured us that our effort to create safe, inclusive, and diverse musical spaces is both relevant and necessary.
Our first concerts will be a four-song set on March 4 at the Interfaith Women’s Conference at Curtis High School and a five-song set at a March 16 Choral Concert at 7:30 p.m. with the other Tacoma Community College choirs (Building 2 at TCC). All of our concerts will feature audience sing-alongs in hopes of engaging audience members more deeply in our message.
Moving forward, we plan to focus on increased community engagement. In June, we will collaborate with a local middle school choir, and in November, we will be hosting a highly interactive community sing-along concert.
In this time where fear, helplessness and hopelessness are so pervasive, I have come to believe that our work as musicians is increasingly critical. Musicians are uniquely equipped to build bridges and help people empathize and communicate about complex issues. Music is often said to be the international language, and it has the potential to help us understand one another, stand with each other in times of need, and begin to resolve some of the conflicts facing our world today.
The Estonian Singing Revolution, a nonviolent movement that used non-partisan songs about love and beauty to unite people and ultimately bring about major changes, offers us a model for what the spirit of this group could embody. Perhaps music can start to whittle away at the massive divides that have emerged over time, and in the process make the world a little more compassionate and kind.
The question I am asked most frequently is about why we selected the name Tacoma Refugee Choir. The Tacoma Refugee Choir is a group of non-auditioned enthusiastic singers from all walks of life. While our name originates from a desire to stand with political refugees specifically, we are also committed to embracing anyone who has been estranged, persecuted, or harmed by various forms of injustice, as well as those who wish to offer support. We are united by a conviction to act out of compassion when encountering the suffering of others and to recognize that unnecessary violence against a few people is the responsibility of all. At this time, many of the choir members are not refugees but those who wish to show solidarity and unity with those who have suffered great atrocities. We continue to reach out to refugee and immigrant communities as our group grows and ultimately hope to have an ensemble that reflects the vast diversity of our community.
Beautiful things happen when we sing. With all the divisiveness in the world today, we could all use a little more unity and hope, and that is ultimately what we wish to accomplish through music with the Tacoma Refugee Choir Project.