On a March evening in Berlin, bassist Raed Jazbeh and other musicians play the melancholic tones of “Sea Waves” by Syrian composer MAias Alyamani. Mr. Alyamani wrote the song a decade ago after leaving his homeland, “to hold in my mind a piece from my country in my music.”
Now, with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees flooding Germany, “Sea Waves” takes on new meaning.
Mr. Jazbeh himself fled Syria three years ago, as war tore it apart. So did many of the other musicians – also Syrians – performing “Sea Waves.” Some had risked their lives and lost their instruments crossing Turkey and the Mediterranean Sea and then trekking into Europe.
Jazbeh is the one who brought these musicians together. Last fall, he created the world’s first philharmonic orchestra of Syrian musicians in exile, reuniting the violinists and harpists, percussionists and trumpet players whom brutal civil war had dispersed around Europe. The group’s home base is in the northern German city of Bremen, where Jazbeh now lives.
While the news about Syria has tended to focus on the destruction of war and the strain on countries of taking in so many newcomers, the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra (SEPO) has been giving Syrians and Germans a chance to connect in a fresh way, around music. The ensemble is helping to shatter stereotypical images of refugees, instead offering a portrayal of them as hardworking, creative people who have much to contribute to society.
“Syria isn’t a country of war, death, and destruction.... It is a country of culture, art, and music,” says the soft-spoken Jazbeh, founder and artistic director of SEPO.
Jazbeh grew up in the city of Aleppo, in northern Syria, with music at the center of his life. He went on to study at the Damascus Higher Institute of Music, the country’s only music conservatory.
Syria’s musicians stayed put as long as they could during the war, and members of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra often practiced in unheated, unlit rooms. But as the bombs and street warfare intensified, some members of the close-knit musical community started to scatter.
Jazbeh had joined the Arab Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, which brought together top young musicians from 11 Arab countries. When the group played in Berlin in 2013, friends convinced him it was not safe to go home and that he should remain in Europe.
“It was hard,” he says. “In wartime, any mother or father would want their children to live in peace.”
After he landed at a refugee center in Bremen, he played chamber music for friends and at community centers. “Music helped me feel at home again,” he says. The city noticed his pursuits and began supporting what had become his vision of an orchestra in exile.
Jazbeh began looking for friends from his days at the Damascus conservatory. “Facebook was so important,” he notes.
Gradually, he found them. In Italy. Sweden. The Netherlands. France. Some had come on student visas, while others had made dangerous trips.
Performing at the first concert
On Sept. 22, 2015, SEPO held its first concert, in Bremen. Among the performers was violinist Michella Kassis, who had been studying at the Damascus conservatory but got caught in the bombings when she was visiting her home in Aleppo. She fled the country with her most treasured possession: a violin that was a gift from her grandfather, who had been a professor of violin at the Aleppo music school. Ms. Kassis now lives in Lyon, France.
Also at SEPO’s debut was percussionist Elias Aboud, who had left Syria because he knew the Army would be pressing him into service, which he says would have meant killing his own people. “I had to go into the Army. That’s why I couldn’t stay,” says Mr. Aboud, who now lives in Weimar, Germany.
In all, about 30 Syrian musicians came together for that first concert. “It was very emotional,” Jazbeh remembers. “We hadn’t seen each other. And it felt like, oh my God, we are in Syria.”
Alyamani, the composer, flew from Austria to perform as a guest soloist. He remembers seeing one trumpeter who had lost everything, including his instrument, during a perilous journey. “He had come close to dying,” Alyamani says. “You gave him back his music. You gave him his heart and his soul back.”
“This switch from survivor to artist is what this orchestra is all about,” he adds.
The opening concert was sold out, and afterward, the invitations started pouring in for SEPO to perform. The group has played in Germany, but it’s beginning to branch out to other European countries, too. It now includes about 90 musicians – 70 Syrians, along with 20 Germans to make the orchestra fuller – although the numbers fluctuate, since not all exiled musicians can take part in each performance.
Themes of resilience and hope
The music performed by the ensemble explores the themes of suffering, loss, resilience, and hope, with pieces ranging from classical European symphonies to music by contemporary Syrian composers like Alyamani.
At the March concert in Berlin, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a rising star of Syrian music who had flown from his home in New York, played a solo lament, “A Sad Morning, Every Morning.” He dedicated it to the children of his homeland caught in the brutality of war. In addition, he dedicated “Wedding,” part of the “Suite for Improvisor and Orchestra,” to “all the Syrians who manage to fall in love in spite of bombs falling over their heads over the past five years.”
“The music touched my heart,” said concertgoer Abdulrhman Hamdan, fighting back tears. At home, in Damascus, he had had to stop his engineering studies. He arrived in Berlin last winter after a journey by foot, bus, and boat.
“It makes me feel sad and happy,” he added. “On the one hand, the music [evoked the] war. On the other hand, it was hope that there is peace again.”
Jazbeh maintains that the ensemble shouldn’t be seen as simply a “refugee project,” but rather as a contribution to the dynamic and diverse German cultural scene.
Few European countries attach as much importance to the role of art and music in society as Germany does. Here, supporting the arts is considered a key governmental responsibility, and publicly financed arts programs involving refugees are a major part of the country’s integration policy.
One reason for this approach: During World War II, many others had supported orchestras of Jewish musicians in exile. Now, it’s seen as Germany’s turn to help.
“The Syrian classical music ... is extremely important music that European listeners should be exposed to,” says Barbara Leifer, music director of the Diplomatic Choir of Berlin, who was to conduct a concert with SEPO in April. “It is a wonderful initiative, this orchestra of [Syrian exiles]. It is a gift to Germany that they bring their music here.”
A new view of Syrians
After the concert in March, a number of German concertgoers remarked that they hadn’t realized Syrians are so talented.
“It’s important for us Germans to see how creative [these Syrians] are. Their creativity enriches our culture,” said Tom Jäger, a Berlin resident who attended the concert by chance.
The concert, he said, helped him see refugees differently from how they have come across in media accounts.
For Syrian musicians, SEPO is an important move toward restarting their profession. “The exile orchestra is the first step to get musicians into jobs again,” Jazbeh says. “I want to use music as my profession again where I can earn money.”
As he speaks, Jazbeh is running his fingers along his double bass. He had just received the instrument, as a gift. Even in Syria, he had borrowed a bass because his parents couldn’t afford one, and he wasn’t allowed to travel with it. So when he had gone to Germany to perform in 2013, he was lent another one.
Now, three years later, an anonymous German donor who had heard about Jazbeh sent him an instrument. One he can call his. Finally.
It’s “a beautiful feeling,” he says.
How to take action
Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups helping refugees:
World Food Program USA builds support and resources for the United Nations World Food Program, the globe’s largest hunger relief organization. Take action: Help fund food assistance for Syrian refugees.
Organization for Refuge, Asylum & Migration is an international nonprofit supporting the world’s most vulnerable refugees. Take action: Donate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender refugee support in Turkey.