At a regular meeting of the Rotary Club of Tacoma #8 I was charmed by the program, the Tacoma Refugee Choir and the board chair Michael Collier.
“Our attitude towards immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as the talent and energy allow. Neither race nor place of birth should affect their chances.”
Robert F. Kennedy
The Tacoma Refugee Choir is a magnet for people who choose to be Americans.
The story of Michael Collier and his mother:
“My mother (Lieselotte nee Stein (Collier) was born in Frankfurt Germany in 1933. At the age of 10 Hitler had decreed that all the children needed to be relocated from the major cites because they were considered the future of the Third Reich and the Allies were bombing the major cities. Because there was no mass civilian transportation, my mom was forced to walk miles and miles during the winter cold, ice and snow. She was relocated to a Roman Catholic Orphanage just across the Austrian border. Five days after the war ended, the director of that orphanage rounded up the remaining children and informed them that there was no more money left for non Austrian Children, gave each of them roughly $6.00 American dollars and they were on their way home. My mom walked and walked, was shot at, spit on, had garbage thrown on her during her time as a refugee. She slept in barns, schools, orphanages, convents, fields and door steps. For the first 7 months she was on her own or with a couple of other children. In her 7th month she was rounded up and sent to an orphanage in Northern Germany. While there, she was a member of the Obernkircher Kinder Chor (Overchurch Children’s Choir) a choir for youth ages 8-21 who were either orphans or waiting to be repatriated with their parent(s) finally after 11 and a half months on the “road” an American Military Battalion drove her back to Frankfurt and she was reunited with her parents. Because of having to walk in the snows of the mountains with substandard footwear, she got frostbite on her left leg. When she was pregnant with me that frostbite turned into gangrene and she had to have her left leg amputated about the knee with just local anesthetic in order to save the fetus’ (my) life.
My first memories of coming to Tacoma was being called a Nazi because I couldn’t speak English. Spoke German, French and Urdu before English. I have a deep kinship and heart for refugees and immigrants. I have sung for fun and professionally all my life and this was one small thing I could do for those who are new among us and finding their way.”
The story of Michael and his mother was typical of the millions of people left homeless and lost after World War Two. It was the largest human migration ever. Today we have the second largest human migration. Many countries have opened their doors and welcomed immigrants.
Michael explained that everyone could sing and then he led the audience of Rotarians through several musical phrases. We didn’t sound too bad, but then he had several members of his choir join in. We sounded even better.
Immigrants to our area are encouraged to add their voices to the choir. “By using music as a tool to reach across barriers to touch individual hearts and minds” the choir welcomes newcomers throughout Pierce County. One recent immigrant said he didn’t feel welcome in America until he joined the choir.
The choir director is Erin Guinup. Erin is a classically-trained soprano. She is eager as she meets new people and helps them find their voice. Encouraging people to sing and work together is paying off as the Refugee Choir grows in popularity. Watch her in action in this Greater Tacoma Community Foundation video – youtu.be/tzUO7YwonBc
Erin is a frequent soloist with ensembles including Tacoma Opera, Northwest Repertory Singers and Tacoma Concert Band.
The choir has several events planned for the year from free sing-a-longs to performances and school and farmers markets. “Our mission is to foster a community that inspires compassion, raises awareness and welcomes refugees and immigrants. We hope to uplift, unite, and inspire through the transformative power of music and celebrate the power of community as we stand in solidarity with refugees.”
At a time when our federal government is discouraging immigration from many locations around the world it is nice to see positive news of strangers being embraced and appreciated. I love to see immigrants and watch them share and tell their stories. They should be welcomed.
“Nearly all Americans have ancestors who braved the oceans – liberty-loving risk takers in search of an ideal – the largest voluntary migrations in recorded history . . . Immigration is not just a link to America’s past; it’s also a bridge to America’s future.”
George W. Bush