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Syrian voices

Dear world, refugees are not to be feared

Violinist Mariela Shaker, from Aleppo, reflects on the war in Syria, the healing power of music, and the contributions refugees make in their new countries.

I always knew America wasn’t a place where one can survive without a lot of hard work and dedication, without encountering obstacles and failures. My journey from Syria to the United States is a testament to this spirit.

I was born and raised in Aleppo, a once lively city filled with culture and history. But after more than five years of war, I no longer recognize my home. A part of me still believes this is all just a dream. I’m finding it difficult to accept that my country is now in ruins.

I was 20 years old when the war started. I was a junior studying economics and business administration at the University of Aleppo. I was also employed full-time as a violin teacher at the Aleppo Institute of Music, where I myself studied music. I held a violin for the first time when I was 11. It was a special moment. I was so eager to learn how to make music.

Music is a great and noble thing that unites people and removes barriers. As a Christian, I feel such harmony when performing Jewish music for Muslim communities. It’s a way to promote peace and love in this world. Since I was 14, I dreamed of becoming a musician so I can spread such powerful messages.

But the war threw so many hurdles at me.

In 2012, I lost the chance to pursue a master’s at the Trinity Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance in London because an exam I needed to graduate was delayed three times. I spent the next year teaching violin to children at the Arabic Institute of Music. We hid under tables when bombs hit nearby. It was terrifying for them.

I completed my final exam three months later. One morning, I left home to pick up my business school transcripts. As I approached the university, two missiles hit, seconds apart. I’ve survived so many bombs, so many missiles. We experienced 30 to 40 mortars on a daily basis.

My mother has always motivated me to go out and follow my dreams, explore the world and be successful in life. I had no desire to sit around, waiting to be killed today or tomorrow. This was not the life I wanted, nor a life any human being deserves.

Mariela at a lace-covered table with her mother, grandmother and brother at home in Aleppo

Young Mariela with her mother, grandmother and brother at home in Aleppo in an old family photo Mariela brought with her when she left Syria.

Photo: Shaker family

For six months, I applied to universities all over the world — about 50. Earning a scholarship for a music program is very competitive, especially if you’re not able to audition. I had to rely on videos from my previous performances. And we had only 15 hours of Internet a month at home, so I dashed from one café to another, trying to find a place with a working Internet connection.

The day after my university was bombed and several of my friends were killed, I received an email from an associate dean (Brenda Tooley) at Monmouth College in Illinois, offering me a scholarship to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. I was one of nine Syrians accepted into this program. For me, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

Syrians believe in peace

My mother is my best friend, my advocate and motivator. I really can’t imagine my life without her. Her only goal for us was to live in a safe place, even if it was far away from her.

Last year, my brother took the dangerous journey to the Netherlands. But about six months ago, he returned to take care of my parents, since they’re too old to leave. My mother was devastated when he returned. She knows there is no future in Syria. About 15 of my family members are left in Aleppo. The rest have left.

It was emotional saying goodbye to my mother, my family, knowing I would most likely never see them again. I left Syria in July 2013. It was an extremely risky journey; the road was a target for snipers. It took us 17 hours to reach Lebanon as we stopped at dozens of checkpoints; the guards mistook my violin for a weapon.

The majority of Syrians believe in peace. We fight with our pens and our minds. We fight with our education. We fight with our open hearts. We don’t believe in carrying weapons: not now and not in the future.

Dressed in festive clothing, Mariela stands at a table filled with edible treats

Mariela as a young girl at home. The house where her family lived for 30 years was heavily damaged by bombs during an attack on Aleppo.

Photo: Shaker family

When I arrived to the United States, a warm community welcomed me. My professor Carolyn Suda became a second mother. We had exchanged many emails while I was still in Aleppo preparing for my departure. She helped me acclimate to a new country and improve my English. She’s an extraordinary woman who supported me in every possible way.

But saying goodbye to my mother still hurts. I call my parents daily. I can’t go a day without knowing they’re alive. When I was on the phone with her this week, a mortar fell on our neighbor’s house killing four people. That could have been my mother.

I call my parents daily. I can’t go a day without knowing they’re alive.

I told her over the phone, “Mom, I feel really ashamed that I’m not able to help, that I’m here in the United States and unable to protect my own family.” I feel so guilty, so lost.

Right now, it’s close to impossible to apply for a visa to the United States. The decision to stay or leave is not theirs. The situation is so much more complicated, more than we think.

I was granted asylum in the United States two years ago. I am about to finish my masters at DePaul University.

I perform to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and to be their voice — for those, who have been forced from their homes. I have performed at World Refugee Day commemorations, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the United Nations and at the International Rescue Committee’s 2016 Rescue Dinner event in New York benefiting refugees. I was also honored at the White House as a Champion of Change.

Mariela Shaker, with flowers, greets Syriac-Orthodox archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim.

"Music unites people and removes barriers," Mariela says. Before leaving Syria, she performed for religious leaders including Syriac-Orthodox archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim. He was kidnapped in 2013 and is still missing.

Photo: Courtesy Mariela Shaker

Music is more than just sounds and melodies. It’s a platform where you can express a message: peace and love. The brilliant John Williams’s “Theme from Schindler’s List,” which I performed at the IRC’s annual gala, is very special. It reminds us of our humanity and urges us to act and create beauty instead of hatred.

Dear world, refugees are not to be feared. We have great potential. We are an investment. We are not a burden. We are capable and ready to contribute.

We are human beings eager to represent the goodness of our Syria as well as the countries opening its doors for us.

And one day, I will return to Syria. And I will take the goodness, the values and education I’ve received in the United States, and carry them back to rebuild my country.

We WILL rebuild our country again.
We WILL have music again.
One day, it’s going to be beautiful again.

Mariela Shaker is a Syrian violinist who says she strives to be a voice for refugees. Read more about her work.

This piece first appeared in the International Rescue Committee's Uprooted publication on Medium on Nov 16.