A Song of Shadow and Light

The Tacoma Refugee Choir formed to reach out to the most vulnerable. Its founder didn't anticipate its impact on her—or her city.

By James Ross Gardner Photography by Lindsey Wasson May 28, 2019 Published in the June/July 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Tacoma Refugee Choir member Nathalie Bajinya.

A teenager sings to a toddler. Her lips meet to make the first note, diverting the air from her mouth, moving it through her nose. A nasal sound, more hum than consonant. Then comes the vowel, pulling at the muscles in her larynx, vibrating a short o. Then another m and an explosive b, a long o. “Maaambo.”

The child sits transfixed. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa,” the teenager sings. Outside, the sprawl of Nairobi bleats and drones, the thrum of more than three million people in a city still absorbing the aftermath of two successive continental wars. But right here, during this daily ritual, this traditional Swahili hymn performed for an audience of one, there’s an almost embryonic calm inside St. Monica Children’s Home.

It’s 2010, maybe 2011—grief and shock have blurred the years—and Nathalie Bajinya’s singing soothes the toddler, a fellow orphan. But the sound of her own sonorous voice pacifies Nathalie, too, pulls her mind out of that river of fear and heartache that had brought her to Kenya from Congo all those years ago—blunts the images that come unbidden at night and play like bad movies projected onto the backs of her eyelids.

What was it her grandmother had said, back home in the city of Goma, on the day that started it all? We’re going to get killed here. We have to leave.

By then the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in neighboring Rwanda—two years before Nathalie’s birth—had riven the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly a decade. The country had become the entire continent’s battlefield, involving armies from the nations of Chad, Zimbabwe, and Angola, among others. “Africa’s deadliest modern war,” as a New York Times reporter would later describe it. When the bullets stopped, civilians still paid a price. Throughout Congo, 1,000 were dying each day from disease and malnutrition alone, according to a report issued around the time by the International Rescue Committee.

Nathalie, then just seven years old, knew none of that. She knew only to listen to her grandmother. Houses were burning, people shot. She didn’t know where her mother and father were. So Nathalie and her twin sister, with their two-year-old brother and infant sister in tow, followed their grandmother north, to a village deemed safe by the United Nations.

Two weeks later, when the UN declared the situation stable, the family returned to Goma, Nathalie and her siblings eager to reunite with their mother and father. Instead they found loss and decay. “The street was smelling really bad”—the odor of corpses—Nathalie would recall years later. “A lot of police [were] killed on the road.”

The rest, in Nathalie’s telling, unfolded in quick succession: Their parents presumed dead. Nathalie and her siblings orphaned when their grandmother passed months later. Nathalie’s twin murdered, found decomposing in the woods. Her brother taken in by a family friend, her infant sister by nuns. Nathalie sent alone to live with her aunt in the village of Rutshuru.

Within weeks gunfire broke out again. She ran from school to her aunt’s house—no one home—and spotted a group of women on the street, fleeing on foot. To avoid the violence, the women filed toward Uganda, the next country over. Nathalie followed.

“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.

• • • • 

Erin Guinup stands in the middle of a chapel on a recent Tuesday night to conduct the Tacoma Refugee Choir’s weekly rehearsal. The green plush chairs, where the chapel’s Unitarian Universalist congregates sit for Sunday service, have been cleared for the occasion. In their place stand 26 men and women arrayed in a half circle.

She leads the singers through a tune by a Hasidic reggae rapper. You’ve likely heard this one. You’d remember Matisyahu’s “One Day.” It’s a crowd-pleaser. NBC played the track a lot during its broadcast of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver: a feel-good, aspirational number about us all getting along. (Think Bob Marley but even more consciously out to trigger goose bumps.) You’ve never heard the song like this though, the way more than two dozen men and women from a handful of countries—Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Iran, Ukraine, the United States, and elsewhere—belt it out.

“All my life I’ve been waiting for, I’ve been praying for, for the people to say, that we don’t wanna fight no more.” The choir hangs on the conductor’s every gesture, taking the tune to soaring heights—“one day, one day, one day, one day”—the refrain building and building until she directs the singers to pause.

“So what’s this song talking about?” Erin asks.

“No more war,” a female voice offers.

“No more prejudice,” someone else says.

Then another: “Hope.”

“Hope!” Erin cheers. “Which is what we’re all about, right? We’re all about hope.”

The thing about the Tacoma Refugee Choir is that it requires next to no explanation. It’s precisely what it says it is. A choir in Washington’s third-largest city, with members who are refugees. The group includes non-refugee immigrants, too, as well as locals born and raised in the U.S.

The choir rehearses every Tuesday night in a Unitarian Universalist church in south Tacoma.

A southern California native and classically trained singer and voice coach, Erin formed the ensemble in January 2017. In its short existence the choir has gained much attention. Tacoma mayor Victoria Woodards invited the group to perform at her state of the city address in March 2019. Local media have fawned with air time and column inches. The group even did a TEDx talk.

The choir has arrived at a complicated moment in the region: Advocacy groups and the state attorney general are in legal fights with the White House over travel bans and policies that separate children from asylum seekers. At the same time, Washington is taking in more refugees than nearly any state in the country: 708 people between October 1, 2018, and March 31 of this year, according to numbers released by the U.S. State Department. Only New York and Texas—in that order—accepted more. 

Tacoma council member Catherine Ushka, who reckons she’s attended every performance in the choir’s two and a half years, values the group’s ability to demonstrate that constituents of disparate nationalities, ethnicities, and religions can mingle. The Tacoma Refugee Choir, the council member says, brings together “groups I know from different areas that are never in the same room.”

At concerts the choir performs the songs of others, like the one by Matisyahu, but it also writes its own—collaborations with lyrics inspired by the group’s experiences. Or traditional songs that had sustained its members on their long journeys to western Washington.

 • • • • 

No one could help them in Uganda, so Nathalie and the women from Rutshuru, Congo, traveled across Uganda to Kenya, where they heard war refugees were welcome. Local mothers there were housing young girls in exchange for watching their children. Nathalie landed the role of nanny to a family in Kawangware, a suburb of Nairobi. But when Nathalie wasn’t paid, leading to a dispute, the woman of the house kicked her out.

Left to fend for herself on the streets, Nathalie began the habit of waiting outside a church, Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, where she’d sneak through the gate when the nuns entered in the morning.

“Just to steal,” Nathalie would later explain. “I stole food. I stole bananas… I stole food to survive.” This continued until the rain season kicked up and left her soaking and even more desperate. She decided to put her trust in the nuns she’d been pilfering from. They took her in and taught her skills that would sustain her for the rest of her life: how to sew and turn ordinary fabric into the extraordinary.

They also helped her register as a refugee with the UN, which eventually placed her in an orphanage, Heshima Kenya, run by two American women.

She felt empowered because she now had a skill. She approached one of the Americans. She wanted a job.

“What job can you do?” the American asked.

“I can make for you anything by hand.”

“I want pillows. Can you do it?”

The woman gave Nathalie fabric, which she fashioned into pillows. She also taught the other kids at Heshima how to sew.

Nathalie Bajinya’s path to Tacoma began in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Kenya.

In her early teens now, and with a little money, she moved off-site and in with a Rwanda genocide survivor, a woman many thought had lost her mind and was too unhinged to room with. Nathalie liked her. And for a brief moment things seemed okay, on track.

Then one morning on her way to work at Heshima: “This car pulled out in front of me. And they covered me, they gave me a shot” with a syringe. When she regained consciousness in the back seat she didn’t know how long she’d been under. Out the car window a familiar landscape scrolled by. Uganda. Her journey a few years earlier, now in reverse. When the vehicle pulled over and one of the two men got out, she fled. She escaped the kidnappers but caught a bullet in the leg as she ran. UN staff found her two months later, recovering in a Ugandan hospital. They bused her back to Nairobi. That’s when, at around age 14, she entered St. Monica Children’s Home.

The orphanage was crowded, claustrophobic. To protect their safety, residents, many of them survivors of kidnapping and assault, weren’t allowed to venture outside its walls. It felt like a prison. She didn’t know how much more she could take.

But for the first time in a long while someone needed her: a two-year-old Ethiopian girl whose mother had died from HIV. The toddler clung to Nathalie. And Nathalie sang. “Maaambo, sawa, sawa,” went the Swahili hymn. That hum and all those beautiful, soaring vowels.

“Maaambo, sawa, sawa.” Everything’s about to get better.

Erin Guinup is the founder and conductor of the Tacoma Refugee Choir.

Growing up in Orange County, California in the ’80s, Erin Hennessey, as she was known then, was “super socially awkward.” But in the middle school choir room she found a safe space. Here 12-year-old Erin wasn’t bullied. Here the word “dork” couldn’t find its way to her ears. She was heard in the choir room, and no one made fun of the words that came out of her mouth, especially when they came out in song.

By her senior year of high school Erin knew: She would become a music instructor, just like the teachers in her life who made her feel normal, who showed her she had purpose. Her father warned there was no money in a music degree, tried to nudge her toward medical school instead, but Erin remained undeterred.

Her passion for singing intensified when she moved to Tacoma to attend the University of Puget Sound. Could she be an opera performer? She thought so. People in the university’s music department seemed to think so, too.

Then, a diversion: She met a guy five years her senior. Kenneth Guinup shared her fondness for music, even if his jam leaned more Weird Al Yankovic than opera. “I kissed him and I melted,” she would tell an audience decades later. “I was just so in love.” They married in 1995, when Erin was 20, with plans of having a big brood of kids.

They had two, a son and a daughter. Six months after Erin gave birth to their daughter, Kenneth began complaining about pain in his shoulder. He was diagnosed, at 30, with rheumatoid arthritis. His condition worsened, his body rendered more and more immobile. By the time he was fitted for an electric wheelchair, which he’d be confined to for the next five years, he had been diagnosed with a combination of autoimmune disorders. For now, work for Kenneth remained out of the question.

The bills were in Erin’s hands. That medical degree her father pitched sure would be handy now, she thought. She taught voice lessons in the family’s Tacoma home. Over the next several years, through the early 2000s and beyond, she gained a reputation for transforming her students into competent vocalists (some went on to compete on American Idol and The Voice).

Slowly Kenneth’s health improved. With the right medication he could lift his arms over his head for the first time in years. Later he rose out of the electric wheelchair and became, after half a decade, independently mobile. Kenneth’s health ordeal wasn’t over, and Erin still had to work as hard as ever to keep the lights on, but she felt humbled, grateful.

In April 2016, during its biannual conference, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broadcast a presentation to its faithful about the plight of refugees. Erin, a member of the church, watched—and couldn’t stop thinking about it. At the time she didn’t know any displaced people, but the broadcast moved her. Inspired but with only a vague idea, she approached the Tacoma Community House, a century-old resource for immigrants. Its staff invited her to lead a six-week chorus workshop.

Erin Guinup (third from the right) and the original members of her Tacoma Community House workshop in 2016.

She and her students bonded quickly. One, a Kurdish man from Iraq named Zamo, took to calling her his “sister.” When the six weeks were up, no one wanted the workshop to end. They decided to keep singing together, but now as a group with a purpose and a name, Tacoma Refugee Choir.

What happened next would change the ensemble permanently—its approach, its philosophy—and it had barely just started. The choir held its first rehearsal on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. Ten days later, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, banning citizens in seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Erin was furious. She now knew refugees and immigrants from those places. Zamo was from one of those places. “Prior to that point,” she admits, “I was fairly naive about the depth of xenophobia in this country.”

At their next rehearsal Erin and her singers vowed to make their music a bridge, one that refugees and other vulnerable people could cross, and soon welcomed a revolving cast of choir members from more than 44 countries. (One taught them the lyrics to The Sound of Music in Farsi.) They performed concerts. They sang outside U.S. Citizenship ceremonies. They earned the admiration of Tacoma’s leaders.

But despite the choir’s successes throughout 2017, Erin feared for its future. She had no experience running a nonprofit and felt pulled between the choir she felt passionate about and the work that paid her family’s bills. Spread thin on both fronts, she couldn’t give either her all. By the end of that year she considered calling it quits.

There’s a concept in art, recognized in both painting and music, known as chiaroscuro, meaning in Italian, literally, light (chiaro) and dark (scuro). It’s the contrast you see in paintings by Leonardo and Rembrandt—the bleak shadows where the unspeakable lurks, juxtaposed against revelatory, bright images. It’s Jesus on the cross next to a dark void. The illuminated face of a philosopher emerging from jet black. In choral music, chiaroscuro manifests as a light vowel sound next to a deeper vowel sound from lower in the larynx.

“As singers we want to make both light and dark sounds,” Erin says. “That’s what makes something beautiful.”

She had always thought of chiaroscuro solely in terms of her art. Lately, she has seen it apply elsewhere. Hadn’t she witnessed it in her own family, in her husband’s confinement to and miraculous release from a wheelchair? Didn’t she observe it early on with the choir, the night she and her singers reeled from the travel ban, only to emerge with a new, bright purpose? Now, starved for funds and creatively frustrated, she was about to see it again.

“I was actually really feeling discouraged,” she recalls, then “this breath of fresh air…walks in the door.”

• • • • 

Nathalie Bajinya had remained at St. Monica in Nairobi for a year. Relief came by way of an international aide group, which pulled her out of the orphanage and, on November 11, 2011, flew her to the United States and set her up in a foster home in the Tacoma suburb of Spanaway. 

It wasn’t easy, not at first. She cycled through foster homes. She felt alone. For money she worked at Fred Meyer, collecting shopping carts in the parking lot, the rain lashing at her through the long Pacific Northwest winters. But she eventually befriended locals, drawing especially close to older women who became surrogate mothers, stand-ins for the parents Nathalie lost as a child.

Combing Facebook for surviving family back in Africa, she found her aunt, the one she had been staying with when gunfire broke out in Rutshuru.

“Nathalie, we thought you were dead,” her aunt messaged.

She asked her aunt if she knew what happened to her brother and sister—two years old and a few months old, respectively, the last time Nathalie had seen them.

They were alive. So Nathalie saved up. She sent money to her brother and sister, started the long process of moving them to western Washington. Finally, in February 2015, a little over three years after Nathalie arrived, her siblings landed at Sea-Tac.

Nathalie, meanwhile, pursued her sewing. She mastered the art of dressmaking. And with help from her mentors opened a dress shop, Undeniable Bajinya. She also met a fellow African immigrant, Emmanuel, from Tanzania. Married earlier this year, the couple is expecting their first child as of press time.

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.

Relieved, Erin sought the improvements to the choir she could now afford to pursue. This new member, whose story alone was a triumph over unfathomable adversity, pushed her. Nathalie was more vocal than others in the group. At one rehearsal, early on, she complained to Erin about singing the same old songs.

“Okay,” Erin said. “Let’s write our own.”

She invited Nathalie and another singer from Congo over to her home and there in the living room they composed an original tune. “Everyone Can Love Someone,” contained the lyrics “love changed my story / sad stories can be rewritten,” penned by Nathalie. Composition became a regular part of Tuesday night rehearsal, with the refugee and immigrant members of the choir sharing their ideas—experiences from their home countries and how the news of the day impacts their experiences in the U.S.—and setting those ideas to music.

Nathalie had changed the group. And it changed her. “I love, love [the choir],” she says. “Like, wow. This is another family I have found.”

She plays the drums when the songs call for them, often next to a friend from Chad she recruited. She’s also the de facto choreographer, spurring her fellow singers to move their booties when they croon.

Nathalie Bajinya and the choir perform at the Tacoma mayor’s state of the city address, March 6, 2019.

One of the choir’s newest members, Mariia Pozhar didn’t arrive as an official refugee, but in 2014, when she immigrated to the U.S., her native Ukraine was bedlam.

Vladimir Putin’s Russian forces had invaded the Crimean Peninsula. Russian-backed militias were suspected of shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed near a village in eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. Clashes with pro-Russia demonstrators led to a fire that engulfed the Trade Unions House in the port city of Odessa. These events contributed to the country’s economic collapse, hitting the tourism industry particularly hard. That made life for Pozhar and her family, who ran hostels in Odessa, untenable. She and her husband soon flew to the United States, where he held citizenship, and settled in Tacoma.

A professional singer back in Ukraine, Pozhar discovered the Tacoma Refugee Choir in late 2018. She’s now one of its most active members—she has subbed as conductor when Erin Guinup is away—and one of its most enthusiastic evangelists.

Mariia Pozhar at rehearsal, April 2019.

“Through the songs we sing, we can encourage others to look,” Pozhar says. “Very often [refugees and immigrants] wouldn’t know who to ask for help.” But at choir there are always fellow members to ask, folks eager to help and to extend the hand of friendship. “In my opinion, immigrants and refugees are some the most vulnerable people in this country.”

That certainly applies locally. Tacoma is home to the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest immigration prisons in the country, and the subject of numerous lawsuits, particularly since Trump’s inauguration.

Meanwhile, hate crimes have risen: as much as 32 percent in Washington state in 2017 over the previous year, according to FBI statistics (the third-highest rise, per capita, of any state). Of those 513 statewide crimes, more than half are believed to be race-related. In Tacoma, specifically, eight are believed to be motivated by race or religion.

The Tacoma Refugee Choir stands as one bulwark against that hate. The invitation to sing at the state of the city address this March came because Mayor Victoria Woodards, a choir director herself, is a fan. “I’m really grateful for Erin’s leadership,” the mayor says, “her continuing to do whatever it takes to make this happen in our community.”

Nathalie at her dress shop, Undeniable Bajinya.

One Tuesday afternoon this spring, Erin dropped in at Undeniable Bajinya, in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood. Inside: a spiral of vivid colors; dyed fabrics bright as neon; stitching methods gleaned from the nuns back at Kenya’s Sisters of the Good Shepherd; svelte dresses with angular lines and silhouettes worthy of a fashion show; and often, as on this afternoon, the proprietor sitting in a chair next to a sewing machine, laughing and telling stories.

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.

For now, back at the dress shop, after hearing the tune, the choir director looked at Nathalie as if seeing her for the first time—this young woman who was already so impressive to her, who had brought new life to the choir, who had somehow flourished in the face of personal tragedy after personal tragedy. This young woman who was a virtuoso at transforming despair into light, she’d had another song inside her all along.

There in that shop, Erin Guinup just had to ask.

“Can you sing it again?”

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