A Conversation With a Syrian Refugee in America

Mar 19, 2016 | Immigration, International


Five years of civil war in Syria has produced what many are calling the largest humanitarian crisis of our time: 4.6 million Syrians have been registered as refugees outside of Syria, half of whom are under age 18. At least 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced. One voice often absent from the media debate surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis is that of the refugees themselves.

The Public Purpose’s Katelyn Sedelmyer spoke with violinist Mariela Shaker, a Syrian refugee who is now living in Chicago, IL about her life in Aleppo and what it means to be in the United States today.

What was life like for you in Syria prior to the Civil War?

Before the war, I didn’t experience much. I had a peaceful life. My mom encouraged me to explore different things from a young age. I started playing music when I was 10 and discovered I really liked the violin. I became a student at the Arabic Institute of Music. After graduating with distinction, I began to teach music at age 18 and started to study Business at the University of Aleppo, but classes were often canceled once the war began.

How did you end up in the United States pursuing music?  

I wanted another degree in music, but there were not a lot of opportunities in Syria. I began applying to many programs in Europe and the United States, which was difficult because my family didn’t have electricity.

I had to run between internet cafes during bombings to complete my applications.             

I was accepted to Monmouth College in Illinois on a full scholarship to study music, but I couldn’t afford to pay for room and board (My parents lost their jobs once the war began). I used Facebook to look for sponsorship opportunities, and eventually, I found a businessman in Saudi Arabia who had helped other Syrians fund their studies. Initially, he told me he only helped students who were pursuing science, but a couple of days later he contacted me, said he was moved by my story and my message of hope through music, and agreed to help with room and board. Through his help, in collaboration with the World Council of Arameans in the Netherlands, I was able to go to Monmouth.

Did you intend to stay in the United States after completing the program at Monmouth?

After 3 months of studying at Monmouth, my family told me the situation was getting worse in Syria. They thought it would be hard for me to return. I had to decide what to do quickly. I applied for asylum in the United States and was accepted, so I was lucky. Once you are granted asylum, after a year you can get a green card. For me, the whole process took 2 or 3 years. I have Syrian friends here who have applied for asylum and still haven’t heard anything.

What is your perception of Syria’s future?

People are dying to find any way to leave the country, to study, to have a safer place to flourish. Unfortunately, I feel that it’s not in our hands. I was able to help one of my friends to come here to continue her education as I made the proposal to Monmouth College and she received a full-tuition scholarship. I wish I could do more to help other friends and family in Syria.

If you were a US policymaker, how would you approach refugee policy, particularly given the situation in Syria?

The United States has always been the warm shelter and the haven for millions of refugees from all over the world.

Syrians have a real crisis today and we are in need of your help and support more than anytime.

All that we hope and dream of is a peaceful life and a hope for a better tomorrow. I would really concentrate on bringing ambitious students who are desperate to come to this country to do some great things. I believe it will be a great investment to bring students.

Shaker on a recent visit to the United Nations in Geneva.
Shaker on a recent visit to the United Nations in Geneva.
Since you’ve been in the US, you’ve spoken a lot about the power of music in your life. Could you talk a little more about how music has helped you to cope with the war and arriving as a refugee in the US?

To me, music is a bridge that brought me to this country. Whenever I perform, I get the opportunity to tell my story, the story of Syria, of suffering. I feel that music has the power to unite us together with such a strong bond to remove all the barriers between us and overcome our differences. I can prove this when I am Christian myself and I get to perform some Jewish music for Islamic communities. I hope this music will help heal the pain our world has felt.