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 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 on a national level. Highlights of our inaugural season include:
- Performed for over 9,000 people, including WE Day for Tacoma School District’s 7th
- Gave a performance and talk at TEDxSeattle on November 18, 2017 at McCaw Hall.
- Release of a single ‘Everyone Has a Song” featuring Vicci Martinez, Grammy winner Wanz, Grammy nominee QDot, The Voice’s Stephanie Anne Johnson, Nalini Krishnan, Jason Kertson, Emily Randolph, and Caleb Jermaine on October 3, 2017 on iTunes and other platforms.
- Hosted our first Community Sing-along at Lincoln High School attended by nearly 500 people and described as “music, community building, social activism, and entertainment all in one” and have repeatedly praised it as “the best event I’ve attended in Tacoma in a long time”, and “I can’t wait until the next one.”
Building a diverse community and reaching refugees hasn’t been easy but we are fortunate to have built partnerships with a variety of local organizations to help us cultivate trust and address some of the challenges members of our community face in participating. We strive to create an environment to build meaningful friendships, improve English and overcome language barriers, and help everyone feel that they can contribute their voice in making our world a better place.
While we may not individually have a lot of power over international politics, we can together create opportunities for refugees and other members of community to feel safe and supported. The relationships and experiences that we have shared have been profound and life-changing, with one person saying, “I’ve been in the US for four months and never felt welcomed until tonight.” We believe that music can make a profound contribution to the national dialogue on refugees and perhaps more importantly, on the lives of those who chose to sing together and unite in our common humanity.
Moving forward, we seek to do even more to support former refugees that now call our city home and to use our voice to advocate for greater compassion for refugees who continue to suffer. We have plans to produce high-quality community sing-alongs featuring talented guest artists, use media to share our message more widely both locally and to offer hope to refugee communities abroad, and to provide resources to support other communities in using music to build bridges of friendship and understanding.
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 with the Refugee Choir Project.