Guitars Help Syria’s Orontes Quartet Escape the Horrors of War

BY SUSAN MCDONALD | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR

[Editor’s note: In our Spring 2017 issue, we published an article by Susan McDonald about her work with Syrian war refugees as head of the guitar program at the YES Academy at Notre Dame University in Louaize, Lebanon. This article focuses on one recent success story.]  

As the ship pulled away from the coast and rumbled purposefully towards the west, I glanced at the shadowed faces of my companions. The sun set quickly at that time of year.

“Look, guys!” I motioned towards the bright line of sunset which illuminated the sea and islands in the distance, transforming the hazy purple outlines into molten gold. As they turned away from the east, the light caught their faces. Even after almost 20 hours of travel, weighted by the knowledge that something could go wrong, that it could all still fall apart, they looked so much younger than when we’d first met in Beirut, three years earlier.

Thanks to a handful of fellow obsessional dreamers, the Orontes Guitar Quartet had finally arrived in Canada from Syria, with all of its mortars, violence, and fear of extremist Islamist groups such as ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front—as well as its ancient history, artists, still-vibrant cafes, and the shattered beauty of its elegant courtyards, many now reduced to rubble.

When Orwa, Gabriel, and Nazeer first arrived in Beirut in 2015 to audition for my guitar program at YES Academy, I thought they were middle-aged men. Thin, intense, and reeking of the cigarettes they perpetually smoked back then to calm their nerves, they looked battle-weary. I had no idea how they’d managed to cross the border into Lebanon, but when I heard each of them play it no longer mattered.

(L to R) Orwa, Meer, Gabriel, Nazeer

They were brilliant. Their hands and shoulders held a great deal of tension, and their technique and sound needed some work, but their level of virtuosity spoke to the intensive and disciplined training they’d received in Damascus. When I asked if there was anyone else in Syria who played as well as they did, they graciously replied, “Everyone at the Higher Institute plays like us.” 

The next day, I noticed that they looked younger. The day after, younger still. After a concert we performed together for kids who’d been traumatized by violence, I overheard them saying, “The sky is blue. The birds are singing.” I asked if the climate in Damascus, only 80 kilometers away, was similar. They laughed. “No, in Syria the sky is black. And the bombs kill all the birds.” I soon learned that they were only 22 years old—in my country, barely old enough to legally drink.

By the time they shyly asked if I could help them find a safe place to relocate, I was already working on ideas. They’d told me of their lives in their beloved but war-torn homeland: the shelling, the military checkpoints, the constant noise of the generators that kicked on every time the power went out, the shrieking of military planes overhead, the percussive sound of gunfire, blood on the ground, the air thick with smoke, the nearby ISIS tunnels from which terrorists would emerge to create roadblocks, searching their victims for alcohol, cigarettes, tattoos, or signs that they were musicians—a transgression punishable by execution or amputation.

THE QUARTET IS BORN

As their teacher and friend, it was painful for me to accept their return to Syria after the class—their blazing potential could so easily be erased by a single bomb. Lebanon was faltering under the weight of the refugee crisis, however, and their lives would be impossibly difficult if they stayed. So I formulated a plan.

I advised them to form a quartet in Syria, knowing that it would be far easier to help them as a group than as individuals. SInce they came from different cultural and religious backgrounds, I imagined how their story of mutual respect and cooperation might inspire a divided world. 

A few weeks later, the newly formed Orontes Quartet sent me a video which included their newest member, Meer, who had been preparing to flee the country in a flimsy raft when they convinced him to stay. They played the new music I’d sent to them by memory, rehearsing in darkness as tanks rumbled by and fighter planes roared above. 

Things got worse. On his way to a rehearsal, Nazeer felt a sudden, excruciating pain in his right arm. An instant later, he heard the sound of the mortar which had hit him. Holding up his bloodied arm as he rushed to the hospital, he worried about his guitar, which he’d lost in the explosion. He tried to fight his feeling that death would be preferable to not being able to play guitar. 


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As the quartet sat together in the hospital, Meer suddenly excused himself, returning in triumph several hours later with the guitar. It had been rescued by an old woman who’d witnessed the attack. Over Nazeer’s long recovery, the group continued to make plans. 

Back in the U.S., I’d assumed it would be easy to find support for these musicians from different religions working together to create beauty in the midst of chaos. Surely, many people would want to help—particularly fellow guitarists, who would certainly be eager to assist their brethren. 

But then Syrians began washing up on Mediterranean shores, helpless when their rafts collapsed, leaving them to the mercy of counterfeit life jackets sold by smugglers. The sheer magnitude of the tragedy was too much for the West to take in. Suddenly my guys were nothing special—just a few extra desperate souls hoping to flee the horror. 

I made endless phone calls but quickly learned the extent of my own naiveté. When refugee organizations found out that those I was trying to help were still in Syria, they wouldn’t even speak with me. They only assisted people who were already refugees, and they wanted no part in helping anyone flee—no matter how dire the circumstances. 

I tried to set up a program in Germany in which the quartet would teach and mentor unaccompanied teenage refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, channeling fear and anger into beauty and passion which would protect them from the dangers of hopelessness, drugs and radicalization. Yet there was simply no organizational support for the idea—and no visas.

The only countries that didn’t require visas for Syrians were Sudan, Haiti, Dominica, and Ecuador. A generous Ecuadorian colleague offered to provide an apartment in Guayaquil, but that wouldn’t solve the problem of work visas or other living expenses. A private university in the U.S. offered partial scholarships, not understanding that after the collapse of the Syrian economy, the guys couldn’t afford food, much less tuition and fees.

I tried to carefully help build their CVs. It was a delicate balance: Although international notoriety had the potential to help inspire support, it might also further endanger them in Syria. I approached the director of a small nonprofit organization, who not only agreed to sponsor an Orontes CD but invited me to create an international branch which would help additional artists in conflict regions. 

Within two months, the Orontes Quartet learned the music, recorded it, and sent me the edited files, which were quickly manufactured into CDs in the U.S. I brought them with me to Lebanon, where YES Academy had agreed to invite Orontes back as my official teaching assistants. The Quartet’s talent and onstage charisma soon created many concert opportunities, including an invitation to perform with the Syrian National Symphony at the Damascus Opera House. 

The night of that concert, I texted messages of encouragement as the group waited backstage. They replied that they hoped to make me proud. I waited anxiously to hear how it all went, but many hours would pass before I finally learned what had happened: As they prepared to go onstage, mortars were fired into the crowd of 1,500 people waiting outside the concert hall. Without hesitation, the guys rushed into the crowd to offer assistance. When I asked Orwa later if he was afraid, he told me that there were so many people who needed help that there was no time to be afraid. Once the situation finally stabilized, they met the eyes of the conductor, who nodded solemnly. Together, they led their shattered audience into the opera house, where they performed Concierto Andaluz beautifully, in bloodied concert attire, from memory.

HOPE ON THE HORIZON

In my endless research, I stumbled across an exciting possibility: The Artist Protection Fund (APF), an initiative of the Institute of International Education, provides fellowship grants to threatened artists by partnering with host institutions in safe countries where the artists can continue their work and plan for their futures. The APF program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, was an amazing opportunity, and we spent weeks working on the highly competitive and elaborate application process.

By this time, the 2016 U.S. presidential election had stoked fear and division. President Trump enacted an Executive Order banning people from multiple Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, from entering the United States. My calls to various guitar colleagues began to go unanswered—except by Alex Dunn. We’d both studied with Pepe Romero, and I’d always admired him as a player. When I told him about the Orontes Quartet, he began looking for ways to help them move to the University of Victoria in Canada, where he has taught guitar for more than two decades. During the months of waiting to find out about the fellowships, the situation in Syria continued to deteriorate. By the time the congratulatory letters arrived welcoming Orontes as APF Fellows, we were already in the midst of an elaborate plan to cross the border.  It’s still too early to tell that story, but suffice it to say that despite all odds and many harrowing setbacks, the guys finally made it safely to Lebanon.

In the meantime, a partnership between APF and the University of Victoria solidified, and UVic’s immigration coordinator worked tirelessly to resolve the endless international bureaucratic roadblocks to allow travel to Canada. We spent the months of waiting while the guys were in Beirut creating a guitar program for refugee children. They’d understood from the beginning that it was never just about the four of them. 

Once they arrived on Canadian soil, their official year as APF Fellows-in-Residence began. The year will be spent not only on media appearances, recordings, and concerts, but in doing all they can to give back to a country and community that has welcomed them with open arms.

I watched the guys laughing like children as they leaned over the railing of the boat to catch droplets of glistening ocean in their hands, bathed in the golden glow of the Canadian sunset. Remembering how careworn they had been when we’d first met, and having had the privilege of witnessing their musical and personal development both as a quartet and as individuals, I thought of all the people who would be inspired by their stories of courage, determination and compassion. I smiled, imagining where that inspiration would lead them.

Susan McDonald is a concert guitarist, composer, and director of Remember the River, which offers support to artists in conflict regions through education, donations of instruments,and mentorship. She is currently putting the finishing touches on a book about her experiences. Follow her adventures at animalballets.com and facebook.com/GuitaristSusanMcDonald.