The Tacoma Refugee Choir is a welcoming community of refugees, immigrants, and friends who sing together to extend love, hope, and belonging.
History of the Choir
We began as a pilot project in August 2016 in partnership with Tacoma Community House with a group of 22 refugees and community members. The program was well received and quickly grew to create a welcoming and affirmative learning experience for over 600 participants from 52 nations along with diverse members from the U.S.
Community building and education are central to our program as we emphasize the power of each individual to welcome and support others and use their voice to make a difference. Singing together offers the opportunity to literally find one’s voice and empowers participants to be leaders and recognize the value of all members of our community.
The program, which meets every Tuesday night and welcomes new visitors almost every time, is designed to quickly help people make friends, overcome barriers between people that might not otherwise interact in the community, and engage in a communal experience of music, food, and dance. The result is a fun, high-energy, and affirming weekly gathering that one member from the Democratic Republic of Congo called “my best day in America.”
"Be Counted" - The First Music Video
A recent project to promote the 2020 Census through a music video is a prime example of what happens when we create together. Songwriting workshops and outreach events were held which sparked dialogue about how our voice makes a difference in social and economic equity and how engaging with the system might help to achieve goals for improved quality of life. One choir member said, " I think this is the most important song we have sung. It helped me feel that I can help my community be heard and that things can change." Another recognized that “we must be seen and heard to be helped and to help others.” The filming brought together members of the community, including emerging leaders from the Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, African, and Slavic communities.
Over one hundred participants worked together in the freezing cold to pull off a stunning visual representation of a strong and empowered community and expressed their excitement to use this video as a tool to activate the people they know to not only fill out the Census but to also help their community be heard.
Unity in Diversity - Changing the Narrative
One of the greatest impacts of these kinds of projects is the camaraderie that develops between members. During the video shoot, a retired man (D.H) met a young father, which struck up a friendship. Later, D.H. was invited over for tamales and enjoyed getting to know this family in their home. D.H. remarked that this act of generosity and friendship had a profound impact on him and makes him want to reach out to others more often.
These kinds of relationships have developed over and over again among choir members. A refugee from Chad who had been orphaned as a young man found the support of many surrogate mothers in the choir who helped guide him to get a job, become a citizen, and then successfully enlist in the Air Force. He said, “The choir healed my mistrust…the choir gave me a reason to do hard things….I will make you proud.” Another choir member said, “you taught me how to love. I didn’t grow up with love, but here, I feel so much love. I want to help others feel this love.”
Love is a hard thing to quantify and measure and yet it has a profound impact on our feelings of self-worth and motivation to improve ourselves. When we feel loved and a sense of belonging, everything else in life becomes easier. Through singing together, we break down barriers that would inhibit the expression of love, and cultivate a family-like environment where people can express joy and pain, unite in purpose, and build friendships that can have a powerful effect on all other aspects of life. While our focus is on creating music and a welcoming community, we have experienced dozens of tangential benefits because of the strength of these relationships including job opportunities, help with children, tutoring support for refugees attending college, practice with English skills, cooking lessons and food support, baby showers, and even getting one young family the resources needed to avoid homelessness.
A member from Kenya said, “This choir has changed my life. I didn’t know I could sing but I love it!” He said the choir helped him have the courage to start his own ministry to help local immigrants like him. Another woman shared that the choir helped her recognize that she could reach out to people from different backgrounds in other settings and that the simple act of saying hello and being kind can be transformative.
Though the focus remains on the relationships in the choir and the opportunity to bond through our love of singing, we have performed for over 25,000 people at community, educational and government audiences, including WE Day, Race & Pedagogy National Conference, and the Families Belong Together Rally and received standing ovations by 2800 people at TEDxSeattle at McCaw Hall. One concert attendee wrote, “I felt somewhat depressed this past week…I’ve yet to find a sense of belonging, but seeing people representing so many nations around the world sharing their culture freely with such enthusiasm really gave me joy. I can sense a genuine sense of belonging in the midst of true diversity.”