Growing up in Iran, Yasaman Ahmadabadi loved dancing, despite it being illegal for her and other women to perform in public.
After her ballet instructor left the country, she spent hours watching Shakira and Britney Spears videos and immersed herself in traditional Iranian folk dance.
When Ahmadabadi moved to the U.S. in 2015, she realized she could turn a passion she once had to hide into a profession. On Sunday, she danced before a packed room at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia as part of “More Than Hope,” a benefit concert for refugees and immigrants living in Central Maryland.
“I stand before you as a proud Iranian-American,” said Ahmadabadi, 35, a dance teacher at Howard Community College and Arthur Murray Dance Studio in Silver Spring. “I stand with my sisters, brothers, friends and family in Iran who are fighting for their rights and willing to die so that future generations can have freedom.”
Ahmadabadi danced to “Baraye,” a song serving as an anthem to the protest movement that has spread throughout Iran since September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died after the country’s morality police arrested her, alleging she was improperly wearing her hijab. More than 500 protesters have been killed and nearly 20,000 arrested since the movement began, according to the nonprofit Human Rights Activists in Iran.
“We will not be silenced any longer,” said Ahmadabadi, who attends weekly protests in D.C. in solidarity with Iranians. “Talk to friends and family about what you learned and heard today.”
The benefit concert was organized by Catonsville couple Leslie Ebert and Jay Green, who sought to raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis faced by refugees around the world struggling to find new homes. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the number of forcibly displaced persons now stands at more than 100 million worldwide, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
“We want more than hope, we want people to take action,” said Green, 69, a dietitian nutritionist. “We want them to get involved, we want them to actually volunteer, donate, spread the word to the whole situation that’s going on with the refugees and displaced people.”
Ebert performed a dance titled “Love and Hope in the Shadow of Despair,” dedicated to 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned along with his mother and brother while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea in 2015.
“We were very concerned that as Americans we have turned a blind eye to what is going on in the world,” said Ebert, 66, who works as a psychotherapist in Baltimore.
Ebert and Green spent nine months arranging the concert, which showcased Maryland’s diversity with performances ranging from Peruvian folk songs to millennia-old Egyptian dances.
“I believe that we’re all immigrants in a way,” said Baltimore County resident Will Charles, 48, who was born in Haiti. “Some of us came here earlier and others are trying to make their way here. But no matter where the individuals are, we believe that they should be able to have a peaceful living and a peaceful lifestyle.”
Charles’ daughter Annabelle, 9, performed “We Got This,” an original song she wrote in English and Spanish in support of refugees who have lost their homes.
“We can build the pieces together, we can be strong,” sang Annabelle as she strummed her pink ukulele. “Just keep your head up high, just keep your hopes alive.”
All proceeds from the concert were donated to Luminus Network for New Americans, a Columbia-based nonprofit providing legal, social and language services to refugees and immigrants. Founded in 1981, the organization last year assisted more than 3,000 individuals from 45 countries, including Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Luminus board president Danielle Duran Baron, an immigrant from Brazil, moved to Howard County in 2008 and said though the area was welcoming, accessing and understanding public services can be difficult for new arrivals.
“We have all these great resources and one thing that we always talk about is accessibility,” Baron said. “How do you know that even exists if you can’t understand the language?”
Last year Luminus’ legal team provided more than 360 clients with services, from asylum to deferred action for early childhood arrivals. One of the organization’s newest programs, New American Staffing, assists candidates with job placement and retention by helping fill out resumes and prepare for interviews.
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Luminus helps immigrants access rental housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, too.
“We all believe that we can be contributing members of society,” Baron said. “Our approach is holistic. We want to look at you and see what are you looking [for].”
While the concert’s performances celebrated the diversity of immigrants who now call the region home, they also urged audience members to follow with action. Ahmadabadi said action can be as simple as spreading awareness about a refugee’s story and staying informed about world affairs.
“I’m trying to be a voice of my community,” Ahmadabadi said. " I think the most important thing is talking about it. … I remember [at first] I was so angry why people are not asking about Iran.”
Baron said she hopes the concert is part of a continued effort by county residents to develop empathy for new neighbors and picture themselves in a refugee’s shoes.
“It’s not anybody’s bucket list to become a refugee. These people are just like us,” she said. “That’s what I hope for this performance, that people come together and they realize how much they have to learn from each other and they can be inspired by different journeys.”
To learn more about Luminus and ways to get involved, visit: https://www.beluminus.org/.