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United in Song: The Tacoma choir that welcomes refugees with music

United in Song: The Tacoma choir that welcomes refugees with music

Sept. 8, 2016 | By Rosemary Ponnekanti

It’s not your average choir. Tacoma’s Community House Choir does “Do Re Mi” and Michael Jackson, sings in Arabic and Kurdish and welcomes refugees by singing with them. And director Erin Guinup wants it to inspire others – beginning with citizenship ceremonies for National Welcome Week. 

Finally Belonging

On Friday, April 10, 2015, Tacoma Community House (TCH) celebrated 105 years of making positive change in the lives of refugees, immigrants and low income families in the south Puget Sound. Over 500 guests gathered at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, and were reminded, through storytelling and statistics of TCH’s reach and impact, of why it takes all of us doing what we can to ensure that all people have access to opportunities that will help them reach their fullest potential. That we are in this together, that one person’s success is the success of all, was the message at the heart of TCH participant Reysis Alonso’s speech which she shared at the Annual Luncheon. If you were not able to be there or need to be reminded of how powerful her words were, we invite you to read her story.           

Buenas Tardes. Good afternoon. My name is Reysis Alonso, and I would like to say thank you for being here today. I am Cuban. When I was 13 years old my family and I moved to Venezuela in search for freedom and a better life. The 21 years I spent in Venezuela was hard and it became harder when the government turned communist. There were no opportunities and I was barely surviving with my daughter.

My dream was to always move to the United States and in 2004 my dream came true. I was happy because of the hope that was here for me and many other immigrants looking for liberty like myself.

I am a proud Army wife. For 7 years I have moved with the Army to several cities and I have never known a place like Tacoma Community House. I reached Washington on August 18, 2014. I was looking for a place to study English. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website recommended TCH as one of the best places to study English. Caring for a family of 5 is not easy on our budget, but I knew I could study English at TCH because it is not expensive.  For the last 6 months, I have been taking ESL classes and to my surprise TCH does more than teach English. They help people find jobs, they help with immigration and because of TCH, I am on the pathway to citizenship. I also got a job with Home Depot.

Because of your support, I feel better speaking English. I can communicate better with my kids and I feel more secure with myself. Because of your support, I have a job and I finally feel like I have gained independence. I will soon become a citizen of my country, the United States. At Tacoma Community House, I had the chance to go to Olympia and ask lawmakers to keep our programs. I got to motivate my immigrant friends to keep up the good work.  I will soon be able to vote. My voice will matter and I will finally belong.

There is no place like Tacoma Community House. This place has been the solution for my life. My story is unique, but so are the stories of the thousands of people TCH serves. This is about all of us. Please continue to support this beautiful and important work of Tacoma Community House.  Thank you for everything! Gracias por todo!

Interested in helping families like Reysis’? Support our work by making a contribution today.

Meet Marie Anne

Marie Anne is a 67 year old immigrant from Haiti. She came to the United States in September of 2007 to reunite with her daughter. In 2013, she came to Tacoma Community House seeking services from our immigration department. She was thrilled to learn we offered immigration assistance that included free citizenship classes and assistance with immigration paperwork. Marie Anne was also delighted to learn she could receive all of these services in one place.

Marie Anne took her first step towards becoming a naturalized citizen by enrolling in our citizenship classes in October of 2013. During the course of her time at TCH, Marie Anne accumulated 180 hours of instruction. Her teacher shared she had perfect attendance in all four quarters and during her entire enrollment only missed one.

In March of 2014, Marie Anne was ready to submit her application to become a U.S. citizen. She met with an Immigration Specialist at TCH to help her fill out her application in April. After submitting the application, the Naturalization interview followed on November 4. Marie Anne’s citizenship class was excited and anxious to hear how the interview process went. To everyone’s delight Marie Anne came back to her class after the interview and proudly showed everyone her Citizenship Certificate!

Interested in helping aspiring citizens? Support our immigration program by making a contribution today.

Meet Jania

Gazing through the windows or walking the halls of Tacoma Community House from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. during the education quarter, you see classrooms filled with eager adult learners trying to improve their English skills or learning American history in order to pass the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) exam to become American citizens. However, during the last 30 minutes of one citizenship class last summer, the room was filled with celebratory noise as Jania, the most recent TCH Immigration Services participant to receive her citizenship, returned to share her experience with her classmates over the quintessential American party foods of pizza, cake and soda (which she provided).

Originally from Guatemala, Jania moved to the United States 19 years ago seeking a better life. Guatemala’s 33 year civil war – a microcosm of the uprisings that took place in Central America between indigenous peoples and conservative regimes – was just coming to an end. Though the first few years in the U.S. were rough, Jania has had a good life as she found a stable job and watched her children excel in school. To symbolize the importance of her journey in the United States, Jania wanted to become a citizen. Upon hearing that permanent residents can apply for citizenship and take classes at no cost, Jania enrolled in Citizenship Classes in January 2014. After 6 months on the road to citizenship – which included filling out applications, taking fingerprints, waiting, familiarizing herself with U.S. history and conversational English, Jania took and passed her citizenship exam with a perfect score!

When asked how it felt to become a citizen, taking a deep breath of relief, she answered “profudamente satisfecha” which from Spanish translates to “profoundly satisfied.” “This has opened doors for me to have a better life for myself and my family.” Jania mentioned that a better life for her meant having the opportunity to vote. She specifically recalled learning about the democratic process in citizenship class and her teacher telling the class, “Your voice matters.”

Janai’s return to the classroom was an added blessing along her journey. She said that she was so filled with happiness, she wanted to share it with others. Most importantly, she felt compelled to return to TCH to give her classmates hope. “I wanted them to know that all that they were going through will not be in vain. I wanted them to know that they will make it,” she added.

Jania reached this milestone along with her daughter Jania Sarai. Last year, Jania Sarai graduated from a national technical college where she specialized in Forensic Science. She hopes to further her education, fulfill her dream of becoming an American citizen and serve in the military.

Jania and her family await the day when her classmates also become U.S. citizens and are ‘profundamente satisfecha!’