What It Takes to Run a Refugee Choir

Updated: Mar 10, 2020

In 2016, Linda K. Burton spoke about refugees during a church conference. Though the entire conference was moving and inspiring for me, one specific quote stuck with me: “What if their story were your story?”

I have not stopped thinking about this since. My family is blessed to have lived in America for many generations, and I am lucky to have so many comforts and people in my life as a result. However, I realized that many of these blessings came from the kindness of others, and their support of my family during times of trial and pain during wartime and persecution. I knew I needed to do something to help the refugees in my community.

I have always loved music, and worked in the industry for many years, leading multiple choirs and singers. I believed I could apply this experience and my passion for choir to the needs of my community, and strengthen everyone in the process, but I miscalculated the difficulty. All members of our population had different struggles and battles, many spoke languages I didn’t know or came from various cultures and backgrounds I had no experience with, and I was pushed to recognize my own privilege and work to make our choir a more welcoming and fun place.

At first, recruitment was very difficult. We kicked off TRC with a partnership with Tacoma Community House, an organization in Tacoma that has been focused on serving local refugees for over a century. They were kind enough to connect us to their ESL classes, and continue to support us now. Even with this help, recruitment was slow in the beginning, with only a few new members joining. I thought initially that the music would be enough incentive to drive people to join the choir -- it was for me, at least! I didn’t realize how exhausting balancing English classes, raising children, looking for work and managing cultural disorientation would be, and how much I was asking for them to attend choir practices and take time out of their lives. However, I found what we were all looking for was simply a sense of belonging.

Our choir has welcomed over 500 people from Iraq to the Democratic Republic of Congo, who come to make music and friends, learn from one another and amplify each other’s voices. They come to build networks, to share their passions and to be heard. One member became two, two became four, and more and more people discovered the joy of being together.

As we grew, so did our partnerships: we began actively cultivating relationships with refugee settlement agencies, colleges with music students interested in service, international students, musicians and recording artists, lawyers, and our city government. Working with the City of Tacoma allowed us significant financial and marketing support, and helped us become formally recognized and expand our reach. I am so grateful to all of our supporters and donors. If you’d like to join them, click here.

Now, we’re an ever-growing community, performing for crowds of over 20,000 audience members! We try to avoid sheet music, and encourage choir members to share their own songs. We pick music as a team, and sometimes even write together. We believe that if you can speak, you can sing. And it’s hard not to love people when you sing together!

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