Letter from Lebanon: Refugees Escape War with the Help of Classical Guitar

Susan McDonald Classical Guitar Letter From Lebanon Refugee
From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY SUSAN MCDONALD

Shots rang out, and the children sitting in a semi-circle on the ground in front of me stiffened, watching for my reaction. My hands froze for just an instant as I glanced quickly around the room for any escape, any hiding place. There was none. If my worst nightmare had come true and ISIS had broken through the border, all was lost. There was nothing I or anyone else could do. I continued playing, smiling at the children who were sitting on the floor in front of me. They relaxed. They had been through worse.

This was all new to me. I was used to performing in many types of circumstances, from deep in the Amazon to Iraq, but this felt a bit extreme even by my standards. I had come to Lebanon under the auspices of American Voices, an international organization whose unofficial motto is “Art in Difficult Places.” Not that Lebanon itself was difficult—far from it. We had found the country to be extremely gracious and welcoming, and it had served us well not only in our mission of cultural diplomacy but also in acting as a safe hub for our students coming from Iraq and Syria to attend our teaching program. As director of the guitar program for YES Academy (Youth Excellence Onstage) at the University of Notre Dame Louaize (Lebanon) and director of international programs for Fine Arts Foundation, my mission was twofold: I had come early to give concerts in Syrian refugee camps throughout Lebanon, delivering musical instruments and art supplies, and hoping to offer a brief respite from the hell the children had experienced. The next phase would be to work with advanced students from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and neighboring Syria.

Our students were all very skilled players, coming from the most sophisticated conservatories in the region. This was the second year for the guitar program and I was filled with anticipation. The year before, when I had started the program, I’d had the opportunity to work with eight advanced students. Three of them had come late, having struggled to make it across the border from Syria for two weeks of relief from the unending barrage of mortar fire and military checkpoints. This year, those three students, plus the fourth member of their quartet, were to be my teaching assistants and would be in charge of the program for younger kids.

Word of the program had spread and this year I was set up to have 19 students, with 14 coming from Syria. I was anxious to see whether they would make it across the border. Since we were in a relatively remote area without cell phone reception, I wouldn’t know until we had made it back to Beirut.

I was deep in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, well within the “red zone” on all of the embassy maps—the area where even necessity did not warrant travel for American citizens, and where the embassy had no responsibility and no real ability to protect me.

We had gotten lost on the way here. Waving towards a mountain range several miles away, I asked my driver what was over the mountains.

“Syria, he replied.

I noticed as we drove past miles and miles of refugee encampments that many of the people were very well-dressed. I had even seen several luxury cars parked next to the UNHCR tents and realized that these people who had fled in the middle of the night to Lebanon had been well-to-do before everything had fallen apart. They were doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors. The fact that the family car was a Mercedes didn’t prevent ISIS from coming to slaughter everyone in the middle of the night. These were the people who hadn’t left the country in time, who had thought their positions in society would protect them. Now they were huddled under tarps with no electricity, no water, and no hope.

We finally made it to the last refugee center of the day and a group of little girls in hijabs came running out to greet me. “We love you, Miss! they giggled, hugging me. One little girl followed me around everywhere I went, sitting next to me and occasionally stroking my hair. I asked a volunteer what her story was.

“Her mother was killed. In front of her.”

I hugged the little girl, then gave her a peacock feather and let her strum a few chords on my guitar. She nestled up next to me. I kissed the top of her head.

On our return to Beirut, a car swerved into our lane, sideswiping us and sending us off the road. As I waited for our driver to return from checking on the other driver, I finally received the call I had been waiting for. The Syrians had made it across the border! They had gone through a tremendous amount of effort to get here. They had risen before dawn to take taxis from Damascus to Beirut. Although American Voices and the Fine Arts Foundation was paying for it all, they still had to borrow money from family and friends to show at the border so they would be allowed into Lebanon. They had letters from us, from the university and even from the American Embassy, but none of it was enough; they were still held for hours at the border in preparation for being sent back to Syria. Finally, the UN had gotten involved and they were on their way.

My students were waiting when we finally arrived back at the university. They were all lined up to greet me, waiting with smiles and hugs. I had seen their videos and felt that I knew them already. They all played on an extremely high level: Dyens, Rodrigo, Villa-Lobos... They studied at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, which was a musical oasis in the midst of war. It was, essentially, the Julliard of the Middle East, turning out concert-level musicians. Syria had a great tradition of classical music. For all that could be said about the Assad regime, there was still strong support for the arts. Many of the buildings were still intact and concerts continued throughout the war. Even in the midst of mortars, which all of my students had experienced—several had the scars to prove it—performances continued.

Susan MacDonald and Students, Lebanon


I asked them a little bit about their lives in Syria, careful to skirt around any topic that might be dangerous for them.

They struggled with the lack of electricity and the accompanying bedlam of the generators, mortar fire, and the constant fear of being stopped at checkpoints to be conscripted into Assad’s army, where they would serve as fodder on the front lines against their fellow citizens. Or worse, if a checkpoint was controlled by ISIS, they risked having their phones searched. If any of the photos showed that they were musicians, they risked amputation, since music was forbidden under that particularly twisted brand of fanaticism.

There were specific physical problems I had never encountered in all of my years of teaching. Six years of war had created hunched, protective postures in many players. They all had neck problems. It was almost as if they were trying to protect themselves by drawing their necks into their bodies. That in turn caused nerve issues and problems that affected their arms and hands. I couldn’t imagine how I would be able to fix them in two short weeks. I knew that my work with them would continue long after we had all returned home. I was grateful for the internet.

First I had them breathe. “Every time you exhale,” I told them, “imagine that all of the tension, all of the fear, all of the worry is being released. Drive it out with every breath.” They visibly relaxed.

“When you inhale, imagine light and strength filling your body, straightening your spine. They closed their eyes and did as I said. Their shoulders relaxed. I felt as if I were part of some holy ritual. I was not the teacher here. I was just part of what was happening.

I went around the room and, one by one, took their hands. They were brittle and tense. “Let go,” I said. There was a marginal shift. “Completely,” I said, holding their hands. Their hands felt like frightened animals, practically trembling with stress. “You are safe here. Let me hold your hands. You don’t need to do anything. Just relax.” One by one, they let go. It was the same each time. Once they wrapped their heads around the feeling of safety, they surrendered. Completely.

At the end of the class, I asked each student to play something short and to tell me why they played music. As I listened to their answers, I tried to hold myself together.

“Our lives are terrible… without music.” “It’s like Heaven’s stairs.”

“When the bombs are going off, sometimes we think, ‘If I get killed… it will not be so bad.’ And then I pick up my guitar and it is OK that I live.”

“Because for us music is a matter of life and death.”

The truth was this was so much more than teaching. I was committed to these students. They had become my musical godchildren.

I gave them everything I had musically, physically, spiritually—even financially. And yet what they gave me was so much more. They renewed my faith, my confidence in my path, and even my music. Through them, I once again accessed all that I most loved about music: the passion, the surrender to beauty, the sense of communion with those around me. Most of all, I saw with fresh eyes the tremendous, sacred, weighty gift I had been given with my drive to pursue the life of a musician.

I knew that I needed to fortify them in the face of the storm to which they must return. Realizing how profoundly affected they were by every word I said to them, I gave them images to work with, ideas that went well beyond music but which were perfectly expressed through music: “I firmly believe that every positive note, every sound, every act of beauty, serves to counteract something negative somewhere else. So every time you play a note, send it out into the world. Feel the weight of your arms and push the strings into the guitar. Let the sound resonate. Let it work its mission on the world. Overcome darkness with each note.”

I let each of them play my guitar. They would sit down, play a few notes, and then close their eyes, listening to each note as it rang out sweetly and strongly, and smile in pure bliss. I knew that when they played their own guitars they would remember the sound they gotten from my Guillermo Poras Salazar guitar and try to emulate it. That alone would drive the fear and despair aside for a while. In addition to technique classes and private lessons, we created a small guitar orchestra. Their playing was precise, determined, and emotional. Although the students came from several different religions, they worked together like brothers and sisters, each looking out for the other and offering encouragement.

I made videotapes for them. I knew that somehow they would come in handy, that perhaps they might help them find opportunities in places not besieged by war. The first year when I had done it, they had faltered before the camera, overtaken by nerves and the high stakes of hope.

What could I possibly tell them? To pull themselves together? To be more determined? They knew how to do those things in the face of trauma, but not, perhaps, in the face of hope.

It suddenly came to me in a flash of inspiration. I had recently spent some time deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon working on a new Animal Ballet (for which I film wildlife, often in remote locales, and then compose music to go along with their movements and personalities). Remembering the astonishing biodiversity, the many unseen levels of life, the rich sense of hidden mysteries, I knew exactly what to say to them.

“Within each of us flows a river. A river of beauty, a river of strength, a river that cannot be compromised by anything external. In this river is every beautiful sight, every exquisite sound, every note ever written. You can always find those things if you look into the river.” I smiled at them. They were rapt.

“Of course there will be times when you get thrown out of the river,” I continued. “You might start to panic, to climb toward the brambles. That is natural. But don’t. You must get back into the river as quickly as you can. Within the river is beauty. Within the river is safety. Always remember the river.”

I knew that this imagery would be called for many times after they returned to their war-stricken nation. It was about so much more than music.

After they returned, each time I would learn on the news about new attacks and atrocities taking place in their vicinity in Syria, I would worry. I would try to reach them, but often communication was impossible. Desperate to help, to offer something encouraging, to act in some way, no matter how small, I typed a message to them on Facebook. It said simply, “Remember the River.”

One by one, as access was restored, they responded.

“The river still flows for us.” “The river is life.” “We will always remember the river.”

Ensemble Enkidu, Iraq

Susan McDonald is a concert guitarist and Director of International Programs for Remember the River (the international branch of Fine Arts Foundation, a 501c3 organization), whose mission is to support artists in regions of conflict or isolation through performances, deliveries of musical instruments and art supplies, teacher training and mentorship.