SPARTA, Wis. — The iconic melodies of “The Nutcracker” sounded through an unusual venue: a U.S. military base hosting Afghan refugees.
The Madison Ballet presented four performances of the holiday classic last weekend at Fort McCoy before a crowd of enthralled Afghans at a warehouse on base, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The refugees have been staying at the military installation in Sparta since their country fell to the Taliban following a withdrawal of the U.S. military after 20 years in the country. The base once housed 13,000 refugees, but that number has fallen to around 7,000 as Afghans have been resettled across the U.S., said Eva Rupp, a deputy federal coordinator with the Department of Homeland Security.
The performance on Friday had all the trappings of any other, with refugees presenting their tickets at the door, applauding the top moments and recording much of it on their cellphones.
Jonathan Solari, CEO of the Madison Ballet, said the excitement was “palpable” in the warehouse on the base that hosted the performance.
“I’m overwhelmed, my heart is full,” Solari said. “I cannot articulate how much joy it brought me to see them overjoyed.
“There were kids who had their chins on the side of the stage just in awe of our dancers,” he said.
Solari’s mission to bring “The Nutcracker” to Fort McCoy started after reading about the thousands of refugees at the base, half of whom are children. He and his spouse had previously worked with refugees in Greece in 2015 and 2016 in the early years of Europe’s refugee crisis.
“What was best for the kids was a craft, a distraction, something to do,” Solari recalled.
After messaging a friend last month who worked with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Maryland, Solari was put in touch with officials at the lead agencies overseeing the resettlement of the Afghan refugees.
“This might be a way to be able to show people that we care about them and that they’re welcome here,” he said. “We can give a little piece of ourselves and our culture and we can, in turn, learn a great deal about them.”
Mozhgan Karimi, a 30-year-old Afghan woman who attended Friday’s performance, said she was not expecting the high-caliber performance brought by “The Nutcracker” cast.
“It was amazing, and I had a very good experience seeing that,” Karimi said through a translator.
Holiday cheer aside, Karimi’s experience as a refugee has not been easy.
She came to the United States alone, the rest of her family still in Afghanistan. During the chaotic evacuation at the Kabul airport, her cellphone was broken and she still does not have one, putting her out of touch with loved ones for months.
Though thousands of Afghans have been resettled, Karimi does not know when she will leave Fort McCoy. Once resettled, she wants to continue her career as a makeup artist.
“Sometimes I’m thinking about it, I wish I never came,” Karimi said through a translator.
The afternoon’s performance had close-to-the-heart importance for Lela Zasari, a 12-year-old who danced with the ballet. Her father came to the U.S. from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Zasari called the performance “very inspirational.”
“I feel very privileged to get to perform in front of the Afghans,” she said. “I’m just grateful that they liked it. It’s almost like I’m telling them not to give up on their dreams.”