At Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner profiles the Tacoma Refugee Choir, a choral group with many who have fled war and conflict in places like Africa and Ukraine in a bid to find a new life in America. In the choir, they’re not only composing their own songs, they’re building a network and a community.
“We walked…for like two weeks,” she would later recall, so much walking her shoes turned to shreds. The lullabies and hymns she learned from her mother buoyed her. When those ran out Nathalie made up her own. Humming, composing, singing—she pressed on.
Ahead lie Uganda, then Kenya, where she would live on the streets before taking up residence at a series of orphanages. And beyond that, a world away, a life she could not yet imagine, in a city on Puget Sound, waiting to hear her song.
She heard about the choir while studying for her U.S. citizenship exam. A choir for refugees? she thought. That’s me. She showed up for her first rehearsal in January 2018. Her arrival coincided with some good news for the choir. Weeks earlier, the city council voted unanimously to grant $20,000 to help fund the choir’s 2018 season.
When Nathalie got to the one about her orphan friend—the Ethiopian two-year-old back at St. Monica in Nairobi—and the song Nathalie sang to soothe her, she piped a few lyrics.
Here came that opening m like a hum. The short o. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa. Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Her eyes closed as she sang, her voice filling the shop. “That means… ’Everything will be all right,’” she explained.
Erin had never heard the song before. Hours later it would enter the choir’s repertoire. During rehearsal that night, at Erin’s direction, Nathalie would convene with a few other Swahili speakers in the group and type out the lyrics to be projected on a wall. Soon everyone would be fitting their mouths around these new words. And Nathalie would introduce a dance. Five steps to the right, kick. Five steps to the left, kick. Five forward, kick. And the following week—with Erin away and Mariia Pozhar of Ukraine conducting—Nathalie, in a loose purple- and white-dyed dress, would lead them all through it again. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Kick. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Kick. As they moved the choir members would brush against one another so closely they’d practically be holding each other up.