In her short life, 21-year-old Nathalie Bajinya has rarely — if ever — truly had a home. In Africa she was subjected to nearly unspeakable atrocities. Once she arrived in America, she felt isolated and alone.
What has begun to change that, she says, is the Tacoma Refugee Choir. Through music and the community the choir has fostered, Bajinya finally feels like she has somewhere to belong. And she's not alone in this experience.
Sitting in the Lakewood clothing design shop she opened a little over a month ago, Bajinya told the story of how she ended in the United States. She relayed it with an incredible candor that seemed to suck the oxygen right out of the room — at least from everyone but her.
It involves being pressured toward prostitution and forced into homelessness before her tenth birthday. It includes traveling from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Kenya in an effort to seek help from the United Nations and spending years in a Kenyan orphanage. It entails being kidnapped, drugged and sexually assaulted again after she turned 14 and was too old to stay in the orphanage.
“It’s a long story,” Bajinya, the daughter of a Hutu mother and Tutsi father, finally concluded — flashing a smile that belied the gravity of what she'd just recounted.
Even so, she said, adjusting to life in the United States, where she was placed into foster care, has been more difficult.
“You looked surprised when Nathalie said it was harder acclimating to America than facing sex trafficking, violence, being orphaned and separated from siblings,” said Erin Guinup, director of the Tacoma Refugee Choir. “Sadly, I have heard similar sentiments from a number of other refugees.
“It’s hard enough to lose everything, learn a new language, face constant unfamiliarity and cultural differences while working multiple jobs and barely making it, but the lack of supportive community, fear and the constant onslaught of micro-aggressions makes it nearly unbearable sometimes.”
Today, Bajinya lives in Steilacoom. She’s studying business at Tacoma Community College and recently turned her passion for sewing and designing clothes — which she learned in the Kenyan orphanage — into a brick-and-mortar business. There, a lone sewing machine sits near the entrance, and racks of beautiful, brightly colored dresses line the walls.
One of Bajinya’s other passions is music — specifically singing. It’s what led her to the Tacoma Refugee Choir.
“If I miss it, I’m not OK. It’s a home. I feel like I have people there who care, who know what’s going on,” Bajinya said of the Refugee Choir, which rehearses every Tuesday night at the Lighthouse Activity Center on Tacoma’s East Side.
On Saturday, the choir will present "Refugee Stories: Hope in a Divided World" at Stewart Middle School. The program features songs, poems, stories and dance "that relate some of the heartache of being a refugee and their courage and hope for the future," according to Guinup.
“It means a lot to me,” Bajinya explained of void the choir has helped fill for her. “Especially when you come here, you don’t have a friend, you don’t have anybody, and it’s hard. But when you go to the Refugee Choir, people there are welcoming you, you feel different.”
Abou Saleh relayed similar sentiments during Tuesday night’s rehearsal. Originally from Chad, Saleh, 23, described feelings of intense loneliness before finding his way to the Refugee Choir.
“To be honest, it’s really hard,” Saleh said of life in Tacoma, where he now lives. “Because life here is different than where I came from.
“Having the connection with the choir, it was like a place for love, it’s like a home for love, where love is being expressed unconditionally. You come here, and you go home having a smile on your face.”
The beginnings of the Tacoma Refugee Choir trace back to a pilot project and partnership with Tacoma Community House. It was so well-received that in early 2017 the endeavor became more formalized, and the group — which is a mix of immigrants and American-born singers — ramped up recruitment efforts.
Today, rehearsals routinely draw between 40 and 65 people, and the choir has included participants from 31 different countries.
Late last year, the Tacoma City Council authorized the use of $20,000 of contingency funds to support the choir’s 2018 season.
Guinup was blunt when asked about what she’s learned and her motivations for starting the choir.
“I was pretty naïve to the depth of xenophobia in our community. As a white woman, I hadn’t experienced a lot of the ambivalence and hatred toward people of color,” Guinup said. “So, this was not started in response to any particular political philosophies, but it certainly has galvanized our determination to make sure that we’re sending a really positive message about how our community needs everyone.”
“Ultimately, it’s more important than ever that we remember who is in our community and to embrace that,” Guinup explained of the current political climate and uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“Seismic change happens one inch at a time. And it happens with one heart being changed.”
Bajinya was equally blunt when asked about the impact she hopes the Refugee Choir can help make.
“I hope that one day we will not be called 'refugee' anymore,” Bajinya said.
“I hope we will be part of the country.”