Stories That Move Us: Stories of Refugees

By Alisa Hayashida

HilaryThomas TeyaWolvington EricaGimpe lVijayGupta

Lineage Dance Company joined forces with Street Symphony to present a series of performances that fused elements of dance, live music, spoken word and storytelling focused on a theme. I had the pleasure of attending Stories of Refugees, which, as the title suggests, delved into the refugee crisis through readings of letters over images of the crisis in Syria to stories told by two Syrian-Armenian refugees, music and choreography inspired by stories. Artistic Director and choreographer, Hilary Thomas says that when she first heard their stories, she began to see dance.

The emotions came immediately with the reading of an open letter to the current President, written and read by a Syrian refugee. He tells his story of a simple, banal, contented life that was turned upside down without warning. We follow him on his arduous journey that takes him to a refugee camp and what is striking is the tone of the letter; it’s not one of anger, but rather a fervent plea for the new President to simply see them for who they really are; people with families whose choice was to leave or die.

HilaryThomas, Teya Wolvington, EricaGimpel, VijayGupta in Refugees

The next piece saw cellist, Vardan Gasparyan, playing and singing a sad lament center stage, surrounded by a circle of square ottomans the dancers walked, rolled, laid upon and catapulted from. They worked in pairs, often supporting one another and sometimes all coming together forming human sculptures. Dancers Caterina Mercante, Ericalynn Priolo, Julia Schaeffer, Hilary Thomas and Teya Wolvington worked beautifully together and although their physical prowess is impressive and precise, they were able to convey a feeling of everywoman through their expression.

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We then heard from two Syrian-Armenians who fled Syria as teenagers and now live here in the Pasadena area. They too, told stories of a good life, a happy life full of friends and school, sports and dating. Then, suddenly, gunfire is all around you and bombs are falling in your town. Something they really wanted to get across was just how much they don’t understand what is going on. Not then. Not now. All they know is they had to flee or be killed. They want us to share their stories. Tsoler Antoonian wanted us to know that she got married, that she is happy. But she left her parents and siblings in Syria and, through tears she couldn’t hold back, she tells us it kills her every day knowing she can’t get them out.

Dr. Sophal Ear, PhD, recreated a TED talk where he spoke of the bravery and cunning of his mother as she fearlessly worked to escape Cambodia in the 70’s with Sophal and his four siblings. In doing so, their family has grown to include 21 of them living in the United States and in France.

The last piece was a poem called Home written by Warsan Shire, read by actress Erica Gimpel, accompanied on violin by Vijay Gupta and ultimately joined by Elise Shope on flute and Connie Sheu on guitar. Gimpel spoke powerfully of refugees fleeing Somalia; of seeing the boy you kissed holding a rifle as big as he is, of boarding a boat because it’s safer than land, of crawling in mud, of being hunted. The line that sticks with you being “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

Vardan Gasparyan

The duet performed reflected Shire’s verse in its desperation, fear and tenderness. Thomas’ choreography is infused with longing, with compassion, with hope. The creative synthesis of these disciplines and elements packed a powerful punch and proved incredibly moving.

At the height of the Cambodian refugee and Boat People crisis in 1979, Refugee International held a candlelight march on Washington which ended at the front gates of the White House. Then President Jimmy Carter famously walked out of the White House and spoke to RI’s founder,Sue Morton, and said, “I can’t let your people die.” Former US Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, said at the time, “we are a nation of refugees. Most of us can trace our presence here to the turmoil or oppression of another time and another place. Our nation has been immeasurable enriched by this continuing process. We will not turn our backs on our traditions. We must meet the commitments we have made to other nations and to those who are suffering. In doing so, we will also be renewing our commitments to our ideals.”

Lineage Dance Company is a contemporary dance company dedicated to raising support and awareness for nonprofit organizations and to making the arts accessible to all. Performances are at Lineage Performing Arts Center, 89 South Fair Oaks. (626) 844-7008. Executive Director: Brian Elerding, Associate Director; Caterina Mercante.

Street Symphony presents live musical events aimed to authentically engage distinguished musicians and deeply underserved communities experiencing homelessness and incarceration through live performance and dialogue.

For opportunities to provide support or to get involved with refugee relief please visit these websites:

Local organizations:,,,,