Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

A nice story by Helena Hunt in Baylor’s Lariat.


By Helena Hunt, Staff Writer

Notes played on a piano stream out of an office in Roxy Grove. A piano pedagogy student bends over the black and white keys, playing what he came here to study, showing the work of years at Baylor.

The student is Damascus, Syria, junior Amjad Dabi. He has been studying the piano here since 2013. Dabi, like so many other students at Baylor, is also pre-med. After he graduates in 2017, he might continue to pursue music in graduate schools, or apply to medical programs. As any undergraduate, he is still deciding exactly what to do with the rest of his life.

But unlike most undergraduates at Baylor, Dabi is an immigrant from Syria. His home has been caught in civil war for about the last four years, since protests decrying the regime of President Assad began in March 2011. Dabi’s family still lives outside Damascus, which is largely controlled by Assad and pro-government forces but has also been caught in the throes of the conflict between rebel and government forces.

Dabi and his friend Andreh Maqdissi, who attends McLennan Community College, came to Waco in 2013. Dr. Bradley Bolen, who teaches piano at Baylor, was instrumental in bringing them here after meeting the two students at an American Voices workshop in Damascus in the summer of 2010. American Voices brings American music and instructors to young musicians in countries that have recently become independent, seeking to promote cross-cultural understanding and awareness.

As Bolen details on his blog, he first noticed Dabi’s and Maqdissi’s dedication and ambition during the workshops that summer. He kept in contact with them over the years and, as he noted the escalating conflict in Syria and the risks that both of them faced by remaining, he had the idea to bring them to the United States.

“The war was heating up, and these guys had done a great job of their educations and were actually close to finishing there. They decided, well, maybe they wanted to finish their educations and were trying to figure out how they could do it,” Bolen said. “In the process during that period I remember Andreh calling me having had a rocket grenade go across the front of his car, [which] blew up the building and the windows out of some of the cars around him.”

Although Maqdissi did not suffer any serious harm from the rocket grenade, Dabi suffered lacerations to his face after a car bomb detonated outside his home. Bolen calls these experiences a wake-up call for the students, who soon after left Syria for Thailand, where they stayed in an apartment owned by John Ferguson, the head of American Voices. Once in Thailand, they did not know whether they would be able to come to the United States or return home.

However, both Dabi and Maqdissi were accepted into their respective institutions with nearly full scholarships available. Seventh and James Baptist Church also gave them free housing once they arrived in Waco.

“Being at Baylor, I have met a lot of supportive people, starting with Dr. Bolen. The School of Music and the university have been extremely supportive of my education here and what I’m trying to do. I think it’s just been wonderful all along, in terms of having social, financial and educational support,” Dabi said.

Of course, Dabi’s mind is always with his family in Syria as well. Any phone call could contain news of a relative or friend’s injury or death.

“How many times do you expect to call someone in your family and the first thing they say to you is, ‘We’re all alive’?” Dabi said.

Dabi said that the obstacles to arriving in the U.S. were difficult for him and would be nearly insurmountable for his family. They are trying to bring his brother to the country, but financial and immigration difficulties remain a major impediment to his arrival.

The U.S. has so far accepted about 2,290 of the 4.2 million refugees who are fleeing the civil war in Syria. About 194 have come to Texas, which is one of the top six states for refugee resettlement. While President Obama pledged to accept 10,000 refugees in the coming year, the vetting and approval process can still take about two years.

That process may become even more demanding in the wake of the attacks in Paris. While no confirmed Syrian refugees were among the known attackers, the governors of 31 U.S. states, including Governor Abbott of Texas, oppose the entry of Syrian refugees. However, the authority to close state borders does not lie with these governors, but with the federal government. Several presidential candidates have also expressed opposition to immigration, or enhanced screening of potential refugees.

Dabi urges these lawmakers to consider the situation that these refugees are coming from.

“I would encourage people to actually look at the scale and the severity of this catastrophe, and for them to look up what the living conditions of these people that are living in refugee camps, or internally displaced in Syria, or even that are still living in Syria. Aside from the general war zone, there’s food shortages, there’s barely any electricity, nobody has any sort of fuel derivatives to warm themselves in the winter, and we’re coming on a very harsh winter. Just imagine living a day where you have no electricity, it is 20 degrees outside, and you have no means of warming yourself, and then imagine that happening every single day with no end in sight,” Dabi said. “I would also encourage people to look up whether such fears are actually rooted in truth.”

Bolen additionally urges politicians to look at the facts of the situation in Syria and the demographics of immigrants before closing our borders. He pointed to the thoroughness of the vetting process, saying that entry of refugees into the U.S. takes longer than for almost any other immigrant group due to the background checks that are in place.

Despite the difficulties he had in coming here, and the obstacles his family continues to face in Syria, Dabi is glad to have found another home in Waco.

“Being in a war zone sometimes it is hard not to lose faith in a lot of what humans can and want to do. But also, seeing the side of people who are willing to help, who are willing to take some time to [take] a great leap of faith in you, I think it’s the best cure for losing your faith in the world,” Dabi said.

Read Full Post »

A nice story by  AVERY LILL at KWBU.  Audio available through link to story:


As Syrian Refugees Look to Resettle, Texas Could Become Home

In September, the United States announced it would aim to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, as millions continue to flee the violence in their home country. , The resulting refugee crisis has raised many questions, like where can the displaced go. Is Waco a viable option? For KWBU Avery Lill reports

25-year-old Amjad Dabi describes what life in Syria was like before he came to Waco as a student in 2013:

“I mean, I remember, we’d be sitting down taking the exam, and would hear the shelling from near by and the, the walls and the windows would be vibrating,” Dabi said. “War sort of became, I don’t know, a daily part of life you don’t get used to it necessarily but you sort of acquire this ability to just go on and pretend that nothing bad is going to happen.”

Dabi and his friend Andreh Maqdissi met Baylor professor Bradley Bolen in 2010 through the non-profit organization, American Voices. Bolen kept in touch with the students via social media. But as life in Syria became increasingly dangerous, it became apparent that the two needed to leave their home country, so Bolen found a way.

“One of the local churches was very kind and offered them housing if they could make it,” Bolen said. “And we went through the audition and application process here at Baylor, and they were accepted. And one thing led to another and they ended up here and they’re thriving.”

But moving to Waco, also presented some challenges for Dabi. He says transportation was one of the biggest issues. In a city where waiting for the next bus to arrive can take up to an hour, it can be difficult to get around. But as Dabi notes, with optimism, the move to Waco was a good one. Bolen believes the city has all the benefits a refugee would need.

“Waco is a very loving place I think, in the sense that people look out for each other,” Bolen said. “Sort of got that small town atmosphere. So it may have made it actually a little easier in some ways to get help.

Getting that help, however, will be a long process for the thousands of Syrians who hope to come to the US as refugees.  Before they can even apply for resettlement, they first must leave Syria and be granted refugee status in another country. In most cases, people who are allowed to come to the US as refugees already have family here. But, the US is more likely to consider admitting people who are in vulnerable situations – like the erupting violence in Syria – and who do not already have family ties. Regardless, the process can take a number of months depending on the situation. Aaron Rippenkroeger, CEO of the Refugee Services of Texas explains.

“The U.S. refugee program is not typically, it’s not designed for emergency, rapid fire action,” Rippenkroeger said. “It’s again those security checks are a very important part of that. And part of the slowness of it. And the thoroughness of it.”

Once approved for what is called a “third country resettlement,” refugees are referred to organizations like the Refugee Services of Texas. Of the 10,000 that the US has committed to welcoming in 2016, Rippenkroeger estimates that anywhere from 700 to a 1,000 Syrians will put down roots in Texas in the near future.

“I think we will see a slow, methodical increase of them in the next couple years. And I think we’ll start to see that uptake start to happen in early next calendar year,” Rippenkroeger said.

There are three main things that make a city a viable place for refugee resettlement:  an open job market, available housing, and a reasonable cost of living. Rippenkroeger stresses that the benefits associated with resettlement are generally limited to six months, after which time he says refugees need to be self-sufficient. A city that supports refugee resettlement, receives aid – like School Impact Grants and health screening facilities – from state and federal governments to help develop its infrastructure. But while Waco is not currently a designated resettlement site, Rippenkroeger expressed optimism that it could be if the city expressed interest.

“Waco has all the indicators that would speak to a positive resettlement experience,” Rippenkroeger said. “But again if that were to happen it would happen very slowly, very gradually. Small numbers. You know, as community people and community partners become familiar with the program and how it works and the clients and the new community members that could be joining the community in that way.”

While it remains uncertain how many – if any – Syrians will relocate to Waco, there will be some relocating to surrounding cities, like Houston, which according to reports has an estimated refugee population of 70,000. But for Bolen – who helped Dabi and Maqdissi, resettle to Waco as students – whether it’s a big, metropolitan city or a small, rural town that receives the refugees, what matters is a welcoming community.

“I think it’s the Swedish chef on the Muppets that used to say peoples is peoples, right? I think that’s the moral of the story that people are people,” Bolen said. “We draw up boundaries but it’s not what’s important.”

Read Full Post »

[ 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.

The Conservatory and Opera House in Damascus.


Damage to a Conservatory practice room, post bombing.

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.

Amjad and Andreh practicing for an upcoming performance.


05 My class in Syria

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.

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.

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.

08 Amjad hurt

Amjad, following a bomb blast outside his home. 2012.


09 amjad patched 2

Amjad, patched up and ready to get back to the practice room.


Damage to a home, following the car bomb that injured Amjad.

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.

Andrey and Amjad

Read Full Post »

Though the American Voices workshops were cut short this summer, the Jordanian program was a huge success.  It is exciting to see how our presence in Jordan still reinforced the awareness of our work last year in the other countries we visited in the region.  I get daily emails from students eager for us to return next year.  Fingers crossed, kids!

Just as I posted last summer’s epilogue, below are additional pictures and video from some of the highlights of our time in Jordan.

I will continue to use this space to keep people updated on things related to the American Voices experience and mission.  If you have enjoyed reading about our work and my adventures, please consider a small tax-deductible donation to American Voices.  Our work can only continue with the support of music, dance, and theater lovers like you!



A special thanks goes to the Alfred Music Company, and Mary Beth Parker of the Waco Piano Center for their generous donation of music to the American Voices program.  Thanks to them, many boxes of music were donated to the Jordanian libraries this summer.  In this picture left to right:  Mark Thayer (St. Louis), Andreh Maqdisi (Syria), John Ferguson (AV founder and Big Boss), and Aram Kawa (Iraq).


Greg Hurley (East Carolina University) takes command of this Jordanian military orchestra rehearsal.


Sarah Hamade arrives for the final Gala concert.  The concert sported an audience of 1000 people and live Jordanian TV broadcasts.


The Children’s group opens the string portion of the Gala program.


Ira Spaulding (City College of New York) gives final instructions to the children’s choir before they take the stage for their portion of the Gala concert.


Ira leads the children’s choir in an American favorite.  They have a bit over a week to prepare their performance from scratch.  The children are always crowd pleasers.


The American Voices string program is huge, consisting of several orchestras.


The intermediate orchestra prepares to take the stage.


A student invites us over for traditional “Mansaf”, a delicious dish traditionally eaten with your hands.  Here, we are taught the proper technique.


A surprise guest.  The man in blue is Jordan’s Minister of Labor.  He was one of the few cabinet members to survive the government’s dismissal in February.


The family gives me a tour of their home, complete with many antiques from their travels to India.  Bruce gives a nice explanation to the Minister, describing American Voices and our mission.


A night at a Lebanese restaurant with my “Groupies”.


Some fun with the locals along one of the street markets.


Making baked goods and Naan bread at one of the local shops.


The local cherry salesman takes a breather.


A trip to the local pastry shop.  Yum!


Waiting for handouts.


Heading to Petra.


At Petra, just looking at these women was enough to give me heat stroke.


This little guy was always waiting for our return to the hotel.


The intermediate piano class throws me a farewell party.  I think I need to learn the proper way to wrap the shemagh they gave me.


See YOU next year!

Read Full Post »

This was the year I “discovered” Facebook.

It’s not that I haven’t been using Facebook for several years now.  I had a particular blast (from the past) when old friends began reconnecting as time led up to my high school reunion a couple of summers ago.  And it is amazing how many people I have “found” and found me via the site.

I think that my epiphany of Facebook’s potential took place early this spring, early one weekend morning, when I found myself in 6 simultaneous chats…one each from Erbil and Mosul, Iraq, one each from Allepo and Damascus, Syria, and two from Lebanon.  (Come to think of it, I think there was also one from California in there somewhere.) All of the conversations were with new found friends and students (or their parents) who participated in my classes as part of American Voices (AV) workshops last summer, the organization with which I will travel to Amman, Jordan tomorrow morning.  In fact, as I write, the YES Academy Jordan Facebook page is alive with chatter from students, most of whom have not even met each other yet, who are excited and destined to join our 10 days of dance, theater, and music making at Amman’s National Center for Arts and Culture and National Conservatory of Music.

While the plans for AV 2011 workshops began taking shape last December, I would receive daily messages from students of last year’s programs, all with basically the same message:  “How are you, and please come back this summer to teach us.”  And indeed, my plans were to do exactly that.  That is, until the “Arab Spring” arrived.

This year, I applied for a summer sabbatical project via my University (Baylor) in order to fund and enable me to continue a multifaceted mission with American Voices in the Middle East.  Along with the central mission of diplomacy associated with the AV programs, I have been working to explore opportunities for future University recruitment from the region, perform during the workshops, and expand my musical network, including arranging state-side performance and lecture opportunities with other AV faculty.  (I was funded last year, as well…for about three weeks.  Funding was revoked due to “new concerns”…security risk.  Ironically, I was bailed out at the 11th hour from a rather large personal expense for the trip by…wait for it…wait for it…the Iraqi Government.)

To my delight, this year’s sabbatical was approved, but with the caveat that I would have to again visit with the University lawyers (some of whom were the same as those concerned about my travels last year).  Needless to say, I had to work to remain optimistic.  And as the spring semester was about to begin, things did look promising.  After all, I had already been to three of the four countries planned for workshops, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and as a result, faculty and administration members had a better grasp of what this crazy musician was thinking by going to “those places”.

Then came Tunisia.

One by one, uprisings began in the countries of the Middle East, and these events now occupy much of the news here in the US.  Throughout the spring, civil uprisings appeared in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, as well as large protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, and on the borders of Israel; in addition, there were minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara.  Among the shared techniques of civil resistancethese countries employed, they shared at least one major influence in their organization:  Facebook.

As Middle East tensions grew, so dimmed the tone of some administrators (no thanks to a new State Department travel warning for Iraq coming out the morning of my last meeting with university lawyers), and so changed the tone of many of the messages I received from students, which ranged from that of total denial that there were even any problems in their country, to aspirations to leave their countries all together.  Communications from Syria dwindled, until even those in the highest state of denial disappeared almost completely (Syria is under the most stress now).  Thankfully, there are still frequent messages from those who feel a bond of friendship, or who are also intent on attempting to study at Baylor, all of whom validate my feeling that the time spent abroad has been worthwhile.

Finally, with the revolutionary writing on the wall, even American Voices had to abandon plans for at least two of the planned workshops this summer (Syria and Lebanon), and at least a reduced presence at a third (Iraq).  That leaves only Jordan on my docket, and an understandably relieved Baylor administration, which gave me the final go for liftoff despite the reduced scope of the original sabbatical proposal.

So, it’s off to Jordan, with love.  And knowing how rewarding the adventures were last year, I am very anxious to meet the students and hear some great music making.  (As anyone familiar with my blog last year knows, I will also be on the lookout for any interesting cats to photograph during trips to the market, or whenever they cross my path.) The flight over the pond should be especially fun since I will join charismatic AV Board of Directors member John Cramer for our journey to Amman.

Come to think of it, I should check to see if he has a Facebook page.

Read Full Post »

After over 30 hours of planes and airports, I am happy to be back home safe in Texas.  I picked Lynne up at the airport yesterday, as she has returned from her work in Africa.  Except for Lynne recovering from a recurrence of malaria, we are in good shape and enjoying a few days of rest before the beginning of what looks to be a very busy semester at Baylor.

There is certainly plenty for me to think about as I process the summer’s events and travels.  It is funny the odd little things that stick in one’s mind as I reflect, and the fact that they aren’t always the big things that we will all remember .  Hezha’s Birthday on the back of a car in Iraq in the middle of the night, complete with violin accompaniment.   Boran’s father playing me a Kurdish folk song on his guitar at the Fine Arts Institute.  The ice cream on Bliss street in Beirut.  The many unique cats I encountered in all three countries. I particularly remember the Dean of the Fine Art’s Institute in Erbil pointing to his wall and lamenting that he “has no degrees” there from qualified teachers.  I pictured future diplomas in Baylor’s Green and Gold , but promised I would help somehow, even if the colors ultimately end up being Purple and White, or Orange and White, or…

Most of all, I will remember and miss my new friends…until we meet again.  (I am tentatively planning a short trip to both Iraq and Syria in December.)

I was severely limited on Internet this summer.  Even when it worked, it was sporadic and bandwidth was usually nonexistent.  So, I am now going to upload a few videos and pictures as an Epilogue to the summer’s most memorable moments, and since folks have been asking for more.  It should be much easier to upload now that I have good bandwidth (knock-on-wood).

I will continue to use this blog as a way to update any news as it relates to the American Voices mission, or to the welfare of the students whom I introduced to readers over the course my blog entries.

A special thanks goes out to all those that supported me over the last two months.  (You know who you are.)  Even simple emails helped me make it through the few low spots.  I am truly appreciative.

Now…on with the show…



The drive from the Erbil airport upon arrival in Iraq.


Hezha’s 19th Birthday Celebration.

It is midnight, but Happy Birthday, Hezha!


The students arrive at the opening of the YES Academy in Erbil, Iraq 2010

Bruce Walker works with the cellos at YES Academy, Iraq.

Students practice at the Ministry of Culture in Iraq.

My advanced piano class in Iraq.

Teaching students to play and name intervals in my piano class for beginners in Iraq.

These two girls were very talented.  Their piano teacher is a violinist at the Institute.  Certified piano teachers are not to be found in Kurdistan, a problem I would like to help remedy.


Ms. Carol works with the Broadway Kids class in Iraq.  They are always the hit of the show.

At first, Michael seems a bit harsh.  But he knows that one of the challenges of the YES Academy is how to get students, often from different religions or ethnic backgrounds, to work together as a team and not as individuals.  The result is always a good show and a bonded group of dancers.

Boran and I shoot video for the new Erbil airport.  The airport intends to have TV’s throughout the airport promoting cultural life in Erbil.

People following my blog learned the fate of these two dogs, and that Iraq was full of highs and lows.

At a party, the students mock a local pop violinist.  Apparently this imitation was right on, much to the delight of the listeners.

The local KFC…”Krunchy Fried Chicken.”  I had a nice chat with the owner, an Iraqi who for most of the year lives with his family in England.

The Water Man delivered water to the Ministry each day.  I did the math…1.2 million Kurds in Erbil, each drinking 5 to 8 bottles per day, equals a lot of plastic, and one huge environmental problem.  Plastic bottles litter much of the city.




Agathe watches Amjad read during a lesson.  Agathe won third place in the Syrian piano competition only a few days after our workshop ended.  At ten years old, she was the youngest competitor.

Syrian piano and voice students pose after their recital.

“Yung Chris International” demonstrates some of the dancing that will be on the finale Gala.


Anne-Marie Condacse and I perform under unusual circumstances, not the least of which was the great distance between the pianist and soloist, and a TV cameraman that liked to startle the pianist by placing his camera over the pianist’s shoulder.  Thankfully, the crowd was large and enthusiastic.

The bazaar was closed on Fridays (holy day), but I was interested in the workings of the “tea guy”.  When I took this picture, I hadn’t even noticed the interesting sign in the background.


Mosques broadcast the call to prayer several times per day.  This was my favorite singer and chant during my travels.  The mosque was just outside my AUB dorm window.  (sound only)

I met many interesting cats during my travels, and couldn’t resist photo ops.


We had a blast wandering the inside of the “Mussaylha” castle during our private showing.


Bruce is thrilled to be standing in the sea at sunset.


Another view of the spectacular sunset the night of our arrival in Beirut.


Aram is concerned that the man may be drowning.  Is there a lifeguard in the house?


Yes…yes…rest easy….there is a lifeguard.


A sermon at the Umayyad Mosque on holy day in Damascus.


Hezha and Omar enjoy our day at Jeita.


No, this isn’t a scene from the Matrix.  Hezha and I have a little fun with the mirrors in the elevator of the Virgin Megastore.


Ira Spaulding hides behind his Kabab at dinner in Beirut.


The tree outside my piano studio at West Hall on AUB campus.  Yes, this is one tree.


Omar graduates from his first book of piano lessons.


This isn’t the way I remembered Snow White.  I wondered what the Dwarves were packing.


More graffiti near campus.


The cats of AUB.


Don’t worry, little one.  Tell your friends (and mine) that I will be back.

Read Full Post »

Everybody should just take a day off.

The idea is especially appropriate for folks here in Lebanon, which includes the faculty here at American Voices.  Finally, Sunday brought such a day and a chance to catch up on the news I have neglected for many weeks.   The campus was quiet, so I sat and enjoyed a diet coke and read the paper.   There was a price to pay, however, for both my decision to catch up on the news and for eating my breakfast “in public”.

It took me a minute to realize why I was receiving an unusual amount of attention from the locals here at AUB.   At one point I counted 12 of them…each with his or her unique tactic for finding their way to my breakfast sandwich… all  surrounding me like generals strategizing battle tactics and placing their army.

A hungry onlooker

When the woman responsible to feeding showed up with food, it became clear that it was all simply a case of mistaken identity.  Within seconds I was abandoned.

Sharks without fins

Reading the news was a degree more threatening than the hungry kitties (if not by as much as one might expect).  Yesterday, the Israeli army and the Lebanese army exchanged fire across their border south of here…a minor event if not for the recent tensions building in this region over the last couple of years.  (These  specific shots were fired …wait for it…wait for it…over a disputed tree.)  The overall strategic reasons for regional tensions  (primarily involving Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel) are complicated, but the immediate worries center around an expected verdict  from a UN tribunal, previously expected to be handed down in Sept. or Oct., that is charged with investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s prime minister.  Recently, a respected German source published an article suggesting that the verdict has been essentially reached, and that long suspected members of Hezbollah (as well as Syria) are among the guilty parties, thus escalating worries that the announcement may come sooner rather than later.  A reaction from Hezbollah is expected, and Israel has made it clear that they intend to flatten “all of Lebanon” should this occur.  I am somewhat comforted by the notion that Hezbollah has much to gain from unrest here, and thus are pressuring the media to fan the flames of unrest.  Regardless, with my departure only a few days away, I am looking forward to my final concert tomorrow night and heading home.

The arrival of a van for 10 faculty offered us a way around Lebanon on our Sunday off, and we took advantage of it.  First stop, the great cave Jeita.  There is a lobbying effort by locals who think the site should be one of the 7 wonders of the world.  I haven’t seen the other “wonders”, but find it hard to imagine other places of such awe inspiring beauty.

Picture taking was not allowed inside the cave.  However, a few of the students took pictures anyway (names withheld to protect the guilty).  However, no pictures I have seen do justice to the enormity or color of the place.  After exploring the upper cave, we ventured downward to the lower cavern, and its massive lake.  It was another first for me…I had never before driven a motor boat in a cave. The gardens surrounding the cave were a nice place to relax after our healthy trek below.

The people on the walkway add perspective to the vastness of the space.

In the gardens outside of Jeita Grotto.

Our next stop was the town of Harisa (The coast of Lebanon is pretty much one continuous metroplex) and the cable cars to the top of the mountain, where sits the Notre Dame of Liban, a large statue of the Virgin Mary that towers over the city of Junieh below.  The view was fogged in for most of the day, but we were lucky to get a clear view for the hour we spent on the summit.

The ascent to the mountaintop above Junieh.

The statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the city of Junieh below.

A woman takes a picture of the Virgin Mary statue.

It is hard to argue with the way the Lebanese eat, and Texas has no hold on portion size.  Just the “dessert” at our stop at the seaside restaurant was enough to make a meal.  Our table was showered with fresh fish, chicken, beef, and my favorite part of the meal… the “Fruit Bombardment”.

“Fruit Bombardment”  A welcome tradition in many Lebanese restaurants.

During lunch, I finally got some quality time to visit with Aram, who was one of our string students in Iraq.  Aram is a fine violinist, so I was surprised to hear that he was in a serious car accident in Erbil in Feb.  (see my post “I Found Matt”.  I have added a couple of links to videos of the Iraqi violin players).  Aram was the only survivor of the accident, which resulted in the loss of two of his closest friends.  His arm was severely broken and he was restricted to a cast for 5 months, a potential career ender for a musician (Everyone in Iraq has a story).  Today, he is volunteering for American Voices here in Lebanon and taking violin lessons, along with Omar and along couple of our other new friends from Iraq.

Ater lunch, we managed to drag ourselves from the table with great difficulty, and headed to the unusual French castle, “Mussaylha”, that sits overlooked below a highway bridge just north of Harisa.  We thought it was closed, but the owner saw us wondering around the fence and offered us the key to the place.  We had a splendid time during our private showing, and ran around like children playing fort for the first time.

Castle “Mussaylha”

If only we had this place when we were kids.

On the way home, we stopped for a Swim in Byblos…the site of an ancient Phoenician seaport, the oldest port in the world, dating from 3000 BC.  Aram and I forgot our swimsuits for the swimming beach, and we opted for picture taking instead.

Aram takes pictures of the swimmers near Byblos.

Omar’s first trip out of Iraq and first encounters with the sea leave him in love with swimming.

Yesterday, Omar, Hezha, and I went for a leisurely lunch in one of the many restaurants below the upscale Crowne Plaza Hotel here in Beirut.  We spent most of the time recapping the events of our Sunday adventures, while trying to escape the frantic news on the TV and media.  Towards the end of our lunch, and our brief armchair analysis of the political situation here, I said, “Geesh, Guys…as I look around at the street outside, it is hard for me to imagine the chaos that war here has brought in the past, or how it might ‘look’ in the future.”  We all just looked at each other like we knew the solution…a day off like we experienced together on Sunday…as Iraqi’s…as Americans…as Lebanese…as fellow humans.  As if on cue, the alarms were set off and we wondered outside to see what all the commotion was about.  We still do not know the cause of the fire, or whether anyone was hurt in the incident, but the timing was chilling.

So, as I approach my departure set for Sunday morning, I feel a strange mix of an eagerness to see my home and family, and a heavy heart.  As I think of leaving my new students and friends, I realize that this summer has put a personal face on what was otherwise a vague and faraway place and people, and given me an even greater resolve that I should, and can, make a difference.  I look forward to working to facilitate ways for these surprising young talents to receive accreditation so that they can return home to rebuild their country, while at the same time hoping that the arts contribute to a day when they won’t have to rebuild at all.

In the meantime, I suggest that everyone take a day off.

Read Full Post »

It is Gala time in Syria, beginning with the student piano and vocal recital tomorrow night.  The program looks to be strong, with works ranging from early Beethoven to Rachmaninoff.  Some of the pianism here is remarkable.

Ayham Hammour plays his Scarlatti brilliantly.

Most of the students are Russian trained, though they lament the one-dimensional aspect of their training.  As a result, almost all of them would love a chance to study in the States, with the additional motivation that options here are limited for even for the best pianists.  This is the case for most students graduating from high school in Syria, regardless of discipline…too few positions available for higher education.  This leaves a tremendous number of bright students with nowhere to turn.  Perhaps this explains why these young talents are so dedicated to returning to Syria to insure she thrives, regardless of where they ultimately study.

While the piano and vocal areas of American Voices are running relatively smoothly, other areas, such as the Broadway and dance groups, are hitting unexpected snags.  This is not to say that the pianists have not had some disappointments.  Initially, the Gala concert scheduled for the night after next (on which I will be performing) looked to be a delight, with the gorgeous 9 foot Yamaha grand to be moved from the conservatory to the 2500 seat outdoor amphitheater.  Two days ago, word came down that the risk associated with moving the piano was too great for the (only) concert grand in Syria, so one of the dozen 7 foot Hamburg Steinway B’s were to be moved instead.  Yesterday morning, the piano shrunk again into a 6 foot Yamaha baby grand.  Today, we learn that an upright piano will be in place for the concert.  Let us hope for a robust sound system, and the inspiration of a large crowd.

This could pretty much summarize the American Voices experience…its strength:  its ability to adapt to unfortunate or unexpected circumstances to successfully enrich the lives of the students, the community, and the faculty.

I can usually count on finding John in this pose several times per day.

A good metaphor for the kinds of problems we have typically encountered this summer lies in the “Great Air Conditioner Fiasco” of two days ago.  Air conditioning is a must in this part of the world.  This goes double for the students and faculty of the Broadway and Dance segments of the American Voices program, non of whom share the luxury of us pianists who can simply sit to practice our trade.  So, when the air conditioner in the only dance rehearsal room went missing (actually only one part of the unit went missing), it became questionable whether or not the old adage “the show must go on” would keep its sacred status.  The situation seemed fixable enough when the Minister of Culture himself made a call and laid down the law to the people responsible for the “repair”.  Yet, after the promise that the unit would be returned within the hour, two days passed with no relief for the dancers.  An almost total (and understandable) meltdown by dance faculty member Michael Parks at the morning faculty meeting didn’t do much to remedy the situation either.  Nor did the suggestion that we acquire fans, as it is popular myth here that fans cause stomach problems.  Speculation went so far as to suggest that the dean of the whole fine arts complex was upset that American voices would not double the salary of the conservatory staff, even after they had already been paid the amount agreed to months ago, and thus he sabotaged the air conditioner unit.  And, as unlikely as this scenario may be to this specific situation, such a circumstance is common in this part of the world, and it is exactly the kind of “moving target” this organization deals with a hundred times per day.

Members of the Children’s Music Theater thank John for acquiring an air conditioner for their work space.

Thankfully, the evenings bring a break from the heat, with cool air that makes going out on the town after a long day of teaching a true joy.  Shopping in old Damascus is a must for any first time visitor.  Besides the incredible history of the old city, vendors sell wares that are as unique as they are insanely cheap.  And, for those opposed to walking, a cab ride to virtually any place in the city costs a dollar.  I have walked the market from one end of the great mosque to the far side of the Christian quarter several times.  Each jaunt is its own adventure in bartering, people watching, and sightseeing.

One of the remaining Roman gateways to old Damascus.

A typical market scene in old Damascus.

A man smokes Hookah (water pipe) at one of the many cafes in the old Damascus market.

This church steeple stands at one end of the great mosque in old Damascus.  The site was once a temple to the Roman God Jupiter.  It then became a Christian church before the mosque was built.  The view is through one of the remaining Roman gateways to the city.

The cat was annoyed at my offer for the silver broach.  The shop owner was pleased enough that we enjoyed tea and a long conversation in his shop.

Today I was “kidnapped” by my students, who took me to lunch away from the tourist fray to a more typical residential district.  For the evening, they took me to the “Art House”, a super high-class (and extraordinarily unique) art gallery, café, and concert space.  A conversation with the site manager and a snack with CEO of the Syria Trust for Development brought up the likelihood of a concert here next year, along with a possible tour of several of the cities of Syria.

A view from the rooftop cafe above the “Art House” concert space.  The site hosts a robust concert series each year.

Another view from atop the “Art House”.  The settlements on the mountain side are illegal.  With time, the people living there hope to legitimize their claim to the home and property.  The locals claim that the giant flag holds a Guinness Book  record for size and/or height.

Night view of Damascus from the mountain top.  Citizens gather here each evening to relax and take in the spectacular view.  This photo captures only a fraction of the sprawling cityscape.

Read Full Post »

…sort of.

I severely underestimated the difficulties associated with participating in the Baylor Summer Piano Institute during what should have been a solid week of travel preparations.  Preparing to accommodate future bills, the compiling of MP3 recordings, gathering scores, copying teaching materials, an afternoon media interview, responding to a barrage of emails, attending to a yard with foot tall grass (here, a big thank you to my student Jason for his acceptance of part-time summer employment), keeping 3 cats contented (one of whom is officially insane), chasing down a mis-delivered travel visa, and yes… actually practicing the piano, all while handling 9 to 4 duties for the institute and a few evening recitals, has resulted in an average of 3 to 4 hours of sleep per night for the last week.  But with a successful Institute officially ending today, I figured it was time for a blog update, which comes now only because I am too tired to sleep.

I did manage to learn something about MP3 players this week.  Perhaps it comes from being from the age of the Commodore 64 computer (That’s 64k to you geeks out there. And mine still works!), but 8 gigs of space for my CD collection sounded like a lot when I bought my Nano last week.  A whole lot.  But do you remember how when you grew up and took your allowance shopping your parents always made it seem like you had spent way more money than you thought, as they scolded you and explained that you had a lot to learn about money?  (It was their perspective, right?  After all, they came from an age when a dollar was worth more.)

Well, let’s just say I have a lot to learn about the value of megabytes and the capacity of MP3 players.

Today I bought a “real” iPod.

Some relief came with the knowledge that I will not be traveling alone, but with the company of veteran Carole McCann, the Musical Theatre Specialist for American Voices.  The thought of landing in Erbil, Iraq with nobody to greet me, however unlikely, was somehow unsettling.

And a quick note from Lynne Baker, as she slogs from village to village on her African “Sacred Monkey” project…She is doing well, and safe, if not a bit behind schedule.  It seems that political realities have changed somewhat since her last visit. But she is adjusting accordingly to insure security.

Read Full Post »

Got word this morning that it looks like Iraq is “ON!”.  Confirmation to come Sunday.  Great news…not that I haven’t been preparing just the same.

A little surprise yesterday morning as I sent in my application for the Syrian visa:

There is a little box on the visa application labeled  “have you ever visited occupied Palestine?”  Having never been to that part of the world, I instinctively marked “no”, even before it dawned on me that what they want to know is  “have you ever been to Israel”.  Further research discloses that one cannot obtain a visa to Syria if they have ever been to Israel.  Ever.

Oddly, the musician in me felt a little pain that transcended the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the situation, and before I even had a chance to reflect on the political aspects of the phrase.  Strange as it may seem, the first thing that ran through my mind was the question “what if I could never play a Beethoven Sonata if I have ever played any Debussy?  Odd, I know.  I will leave it to someone else to analyze the psychology of that thought.  Regardless, I am reminded as to why I feel this kind of project is so important:  Helping to promote better understanding via the universal language of music, regardless of cultural differences.

P.S.  For those folks who found this blog via the Baylor Alumni Associations article and are interested in their note on the work of my wife, conservationist Lynne Baker… I am happy to relay that she arrived safely in Lagos, Nigeria a few days ago, and is now in the village of Lagwa, interviewing locals on their attitudes towards the “sacred monkeys”.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »