[ WARNING: Some of the pictures below may be unpleasant to some. View with discretion]
When I crossed the border into Syria in the summer of 2010, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Those that read my blog entry covering those colorful hours of travel may remember my apprehensiveness the evening that our American Voices faculty left Iraq and headed for Damascus.
This “shady” picture was taken at 3am in the morning, as we were negotiating under a highway bridge for “Syrian Taxis” to take us from Beirut to Damascus. Summer, 2010.
At our American Voices workshop at the Damascus Conservatory that summer, I was amazed at the plush facility (since bombed) and the many talented students I met there. Little did I know, but two of the students would leave a particular impression on me.
The Conservatory and Opera House in Damascus.
Damage to a Conservatory practice room, post bombing. The Conservatory is surrounded by parts of the Syrian military complex, thus making it vulnerable to collateral damage in any attack.
Amjad (piano) and Andreh (violin) were relatively quiet students in the early stages of the Damascus workshop. What I did notice was their particular love of their instruments, and the sensitive… philosophical…approach they took to their “trade.” In reality, it wasn’t really their trade yet, at least in terms of how most professional Western musicians might view things. But they had ambition. And as one can imagine from reading the news these days, it was not always under the best of circumstances that they pursued careers in music.
Amjad and Andreh practicing for an upcoming performance.
Some of our students of the 2010 YES Academy, following a recital in Damascus, Summer 2010.
A year passed, and in 2011 I found myself in Jordan (Amman) doing a second summer tour with the YES Academy (Youth Excellence on Stage). Towards the end of that workshop, and to my astonishment, Andreh made a surprise appearance at a lunch at the Amman Conservatory cafeteria one afternoon. He had risked crossing the border of Syria by car in order to participate in the capstone workshop performances. Since the revolt in Syria had started (only months after I left in 2010), I was amazed that he had risked the odds to make the trip. At the time, the government controlled much of the country through which Andreh had to travel, so to Andreh it was a risk worth taking in order for him to be part of the final orchestral gala that ends each of the YES Academy workshops. Like the Syrian gala the summer before, the Jordanian gala had the advantage of being broadcast live throughout the country and much of the Middle East.
During our short visit, Andreh and I discussed the events in Syria and I caught up on news of Amjad (who was back in Syria attending school). After the well-attended gala performance, Andreh headed back to Syria, and I returned to Texas.
Thanks to email, Facebook, and other social media, it was easy for me to keep in touch from Texas. So as the summer of 2012 and my third tour with YES approached, I raised money to pay the tuition for Amjad to attend the YES Academy that was to be held in Beirut, Lebanon. Though it would only be a 3-hour drive through the mountains from Damascus to Beirut (and no sure thing the roads would be safe), I still had hopes that Amjad might be able to study piano with me again. At that time, I also had hopes that I would see Andreh and his violin again, as well.
But as the date of the 2012 Academy approached, the violence in Syria escalated.
Andreh, during a cleanup day at the Conservatory. A bomb blast nearby caused considerable damage to the buildings, and the instruments inside.
As things worsened in Syria, I chatted with both guys on facebook, and I began fostering the idea that they consider ways of leaving Syria altogether, suggesting that it might be prudent for them (and the future of their families) for each of them to search out their musical aspirations outside of that country. John Ferguson (founder and CEO of American Voices) owns some apartments in Bangkok, Thailand, and generously offered them refuge should they choose to leave. For each of the guys, such a major decision would carry with it different, but equally weighty, considerations. In my view, both young men were of “fighting age,” and to be caught on the streets by the wrong parties would likely be fatal. I couldn’t have been more adamant that they should leave, even though I worried that I might be making a mistake should they leave and circumstances keep them from returning home someday.
It was only the second day of our 2012 Beirut workshop, and any realistic hope that the guys would be able to attend had vanished. By then, the conditions of the war had deteriorated enough that it stopped any but the bravest or desperate of Syrians from making crossing into Lebanon. But on that day, I was in a car headed to the University to teach and who should jump in for a ride…but Andreh, together with his trusty violin!
Andreh makes a surprise visit to Beirut. Summer of 2012.
When I asked what he was doing there, and asked where Amjad was, he said that Amjad had been forced to stay in Damascus to take exams. (Due to the war, the conservatory had to delay its finals. They were now scheduled during the date of our YES Academy and, as a result, Amjad had little choice but to stay in Damascus to take them. Amjad was also studying engineering at the University….so exams there may have also been a consideration). Andreh also explained that, due to fighting that had broken out near the Syrian/Lebanese border, the border closed behind him only moments after he had successfully crossed, thus leaving him unsure whether or not he would even be able to return to back to his home in Damascus when YES was over. But as in Jordan, the YES workshop was Andreh’s motivation and nothing was going to stop him.
The night before I left Beirut at the end of the two weeks of classes, Andreh was still unsure of his future. He had only brought a couple of hundred US dollars with him to Beirut, and that was running low. And with the border closed, we were unsure of how he would hold out in Beirut. So, I forwarded him a couple of hundred dollars and wished him the best, even if the best was to secure a job in Lebanon in order to sustain himself. To my surprise, a couple of days after my return to Texas, I received an email explaining that he had used the money to hire a “taxi” to risk the return to his family in Damascus. Thankfully, that trip was successful and the travel uneventful.
The same couldn’t be said of the months that would follow.
Both Amjad and Andreh are from a suburb of Damascus. President Assad and his government forces have largely controlled that area of the country. However, by fall of 2012, rebel forces had made such inroads that safety in the streets of Damascus was anything but assured.
The trouble hit home for Andreh one afternoon as he was out trying to sell his laptop computer. On the way home, he made a “wrong turn” and found himself in the middle of a firefight between Syrian rebels and forces loyal to the government. “I didn’t think I would make it out alive,” Andreh texted me, clearly shaken. “I thought that was it, and I was going to die.”
After getting approval and support from his family, the decision to leave Syria was made. After consulting with John in Thailand, American Voices paid for the air ticket, and Andreh left Syria, not knowing if he would ever see his family again.
For Amjad, who was still in school in Damascus, the decision to leave rested not only on his reluctance to leave his family, but also in a balancing act between predicting whether or not the regime would survive, or whether the rebels would win. One miscalculation could effectively end his education. In Syria, if a young man has a brother, he can be drafted into military service…unless he is enrolled in school. Andreh is an only son, and didn’t have the draft consideration. But Amjad has a brother, so for him to leave the country would have meant that he might not be able to return should the war result in a rebel victory. Should the government win, his return might be possible, provided he follow papers through a Syrian consulate which would allow him to postpone the draft every year and return to Syria without facing arrest. Of course, it was the “postpone” caveat that caused us the angst in this scenario. For Amjad to postpone his conscription into military service, it would require him to be in school. In other words, it depended on his ability to score high enough on the aptitude tests and play a strong piano audition, not to mention raising the funding to attend a university. Anything less would result in the cessation of his musical aspirations, as well as leave him stranded from Syria and his family.
For several weeks…or was it months…I begged Amjad to leave. Then, on one fateful day, a car bomb exploded outside of his house, lacerating his face. Indeed, Amjad was lucky. What was meant to be two car bombs resulted in only one explosion. The first was meant to attract help into the street, only to have the second do the “real” damage. Lucky for Amjad, the first didn’t detonate. For Amjad, the decision to leave was made. In order to have the best chance to forward his education, and perhaps to even survive, he would have to leave Syria. Again, John came through with housing in Bankok, and again American Voices paid airfare for the trip, and both of the guys came to share an apartment there as they sorted out what to do next.
Amjad, following a bomb blast outside his home. 2012.
Amjad, patched up and ready to get back to the practice room.
Damage to a home, following the car bomb that injured Amjad.
It was fall of 2012, a time in which many American seniors typically take their SAT’s and apply to schools throughout the country. For Andreh and Amjad, they would have to prepare not only to take their aptitude tests, but they would also need to prepare musical auditions, as well. With an emotional focus on the well being of their families back in Syria, and with every reason to feel detached and distracted from their new surroundings in Thailand, both studied and practiced, and managed to find a small studio in Bangkok at which to record and re-record their musical audition tapes. John, also a pianist, worked with Amjad, though John was often out of the country paving the way for the next YES Academy workshops. I supplemented with a couple of piano lessons via Skype. Andreh found a teacher in a local orchestra to offer him occasional guidance on the violin. Frequently, I would receive an email attachment of part of their potential audition material, accompanied with the question, “Dr. Bolen, is this good enough?”
As long as the odds could have been, I am happy to report that both men scored not only well enough to gain acceptance into their respective colleges (Baylor University and McClennan County College ), but both performed well enough to receive the largest scholarships either institution offers. Needless to say, this was thrilling enough for all of us. But, just as the way seemed paved for them to come to America for study, there would be visa issues, housing issues, and issues of “petty” finance that all students know too well.
For much of the year, I felt as much like an immigration lawyer as I did a pianist. One of the biggest decisions was whether or not to have Andreh apply for his visa with his Syrian passport (as his father is Syrian) or his Russian passport (his mother is Russian). After some deliberation, it was decided that the Russian passport would be the safer route, as the connotations that can sometimes go along with being from the Middle East, let alone a war torn country, could ultimately make things more difficult. Only a month passed after his application, that the Boston Marathon bombings happened…as the result of Russian born extremists. My contacts with congressmen and senators made it clear we might have problems.
But, little by little, things began looking up. The biggest news came when an application I put in at the local Seventh and James Baptist Church for housing was approved. The church has a long-standing tradition of helping international students in need. Each year, such students occupy one of 5 apartment units the church owns under their “Dunn House” program, and the church pays their rent and utilities for their duration of study. We also managed to get financial documents from various sources – myself, the church, the schools — indicating the guys had at least some support. The result was that both guys received their visas the day of their interviews in Thailand, a better than expected outcome.
Even still, neither Amjad nor Andreh have families with the resources of the typical American college kids. And in the last few months, the crash of the Syrian currency, along with a 92 percent per month inflation rate there, destroyed any hope for additional help from their families for day-to-day finances. The total destruction of Andreh’s father’s factory didn’t help matters, either. During the last year, both men lost friends and loved ones to violence, Andreh even having his cousin beheaded at a roadside checkpoint.
Both Andreh and Amjad will arrive in Dallas on August 1st. I will be picking them up from the DFW airport. On that day, they will arrive with little more than they can fit in their pockets, or that their scholarships will ultimately provide.
And on that day, both will be two of the happiest people on the planet Earth.