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A collection of talented Whitman College students delivered a powerful evening of song, dance and spoken word from around the world to a remarkable turnout at Whitman College’s Cordiner Hall on Friday, Nov. 12. The performances, which ranged from joyful to poignant, showcased the ways we are different as well as the many things we have in common.

The show was the signature event of this year’s Freedom Songs, a three-part program that also includes the Freedom Zine featuring essays and poetry, plus a Reflection Party aimed at continuing the conversations sparked by the concert and zine. Launched in 2016, the student-run program explores issues of racial and social justice, privilege and oppression by amplifying diverse student voices. 

This year’s student executive team, which includes Creative Director Marina Balasanyan (sophomore, Armenia), Zine Editor-in-Chief Marharyta Tkachenka (sophomore, Belarus), Music Director Bethany Hermann (junior, Olympia, Washington) and Event Coordinator Saki Bishop (sophomore, Bellevue, Washington), started working with Freedom Songs’ sponsors, the Intercultural Center and the Whitman Events Board, to present an impactful program intended to foster thoughtful discussions.  

Gathering the Pieces

The 2021 program theme, “Pieces of Home,” reflects the idea that people’s life stories are like puzzle pieces. Freedom Songs organizers invited students to share aspects of their home—both the positive and the difficult—through their performances and zine submissions. Put together, these puzzle pieces form a rich picture of home. For some, “home” can be a place that stirs mixed emotions. For others, home might not even be a place but more of a feeling or a sense of belonging.

“The more we learn about our puzzle pieces, the more we can find better ways to fit together, and stand by each other as a community,” says Bishop. 

The World on Stage

The concert’s first performance was Associate Director of Student Activities Dorothy Mukasa’s soulful rendition of “Sweeter,” a Leon Bridges song about hoping for a better future. It wasn’t Mukasa’s first Freedom Songs appearance though—a member of Whitman’s Class of 2019, she’d performed in the concert several times and served as the program’s creative director in 2017.

The evening boasted several visual treats, including a fashion show where students wore traditional dress from their home countries and a dazzling performance from “The Desi Girls”— Kainat Ansari (junior, Pakistan), Tejashree Jadhav (sophomore, India), Ilina Jha (first-year, India) and Bidita Nawar (first-year, Bangladesh)—who danced to lively Bollywood music in their cultural dress that sparkled under the stage lights.

Of course, there were more sober moments too. First-year Angela Eliacy sang “Sarzamine Man,” described as “an ode to the suffering of millions of Afghans, especially the Hazara people,” in Dari, Afghanistan’s most widely spoken language.

Junior Ahmed Elsayed read his poem “What Happens if You Decide to Cook Maftoul in Palestine,” a heart-wrenching meditation on growing up amidst the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

That was followed by a dabke, a celebratory Middle Eastern folk dance performed by first-years Yousef Al-jarmouzi, Abedalrahman Jomaa, Arham Khan and Franko Omair; sophomore Feras Natsha; junior Abdelrahman Elawadly; and senior Vlad Voinich.

The juxtaposition was an intentional part of the event direction. “Everyone's culture is more than just the hardships they faced, and it was important to me that we were able to highlight that,” Bishop explains. 

Following Freedom Songs tradition, all the performers and organizers took the stage for the finale: “Ella’s Song” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. As the evening came to a close, their voices joined together in the striking chorus, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”