On the Refugee Orchestra Project

By · Title Image © Scott Bump · Date 02/02/2016

“Whenever a country is in turmoil, inevitably, people try to find groups to blame for the problems at hand,” conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya began her explanation of why she left her native Russia 22 years ago. “I remember as a small child going to my chorus rehearsals, and every week as I went passing through the Catherine Garden, which is the main square in St. Petersburg, I would pass Nazi demonstrations, with swastikas flying and people handing out pamphlets that said ‘Kill all the Jews. They’re killing our economy.’ ”

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the quick implementation of a market economy, Russia plunged into an economic depression. Inflation soared, and jobs disappeared. Amidst this troubled period, bigotry and hate crimes were disturbingly common. It didn’t stop at anti-Semitism: the father of a childhood acquaintance of Yankovskaya’s was killed because he looked like he was from a southern Soviet republic.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, in Russia
Lidiya Yankovskaya, in Russia

Fortunately for Yankovskaya, her mother’s sister had escaped to the U.S. in the 1970s, fulfilling two of the requirements for Russian would-be immigrants in that era: an immediate family member in the States and a sponsor that would guarantee the new arrivals’ financial well-being. Even considering this, the process between application and departure took about five years.

Yelena Yankovskaya, Lidiya’s mother, described the immigration process in an email which Lidiya translated. “We all had to pass a very serious medical exam, and for this we had to travel to Moscow [from St. Petersburg], to go through the examinations in a specific, approved clinic. Additionally, we had to travel to the consulate to submit all this information. The hours were very limited, the lines were endless, and it was difficult to get seen on your first try.  Of course, everyone stood in line outside, in the freezing cold. If something was missing or incorrect in the documents, you were turned away, and had to once again apply to be seen and to wait for approval,” she wrote. At the consulate, she met a pair of married computer scientists who, despite speaking English, were rejected and told to apply for a green card lottery.

Lidiya with her mother, Yelena Yankovskaya, shortly after their arrival in the U.S.
Lidiya with her mother, Yelena Yankovskaya, shortly after their arrival in the U.S.

Yankovskaya moved to Albany, New York in 1995 with her mother and sister, leaving her father behind. Yelena had been an environmental engineer in Russia, but did not have the money or the time to get recertified in the U.S., so she worked multiple jobs—a bank teller, a dental assistant—to support herself and her young daughter, an all too common refugee story.  With the assistance of HIAS and Jewish Family Services, Yankovskaya was enrolled in a Hebrew day school. Thanks to a generous local piano teacher, who had also come over from Russia years prior, she was able to continue studying the piano.

“I didn’t speak any English, so I spent my first year [in the U.S.] learning Hebrew for half the day in addition to learning English for half the day, which was quite a challenge,” Yankovskaya said. Her family had not observed Jewish holidays or worshipped in Russia, so the culture shock was considerable. “I had to learn it all from scratch to understand what it meant that I could only bring kosher lunches to school, and to recite the birchat hamazon after a meal.”

Lidiya with her violin and her pet parakeets
Lidiya with her violin and her pet parakeets

After a year at that Hebrew school, she transferred to a public high school in nearby Guilderland, where the music program allowed her to rent a violin for free. She continued to study music, attending Vassar for her undergraduate and obtaining a master’s degree in conducting at Boston University.

When the Syrian refugee crisis began to make headlines, she was traveling in Germany. “You saw images on TV, every day, of children and families trying to get away and being blocked. But one positive thing that I saw, and that really impressed me, was how many people in Germany just opened up their homes to refugees coming from Syria and elsewhere across the border,” she explained. “When I came back to the States, I was shocked that despite the fact that we are separated by an ocean, that we do not have a border with Syria, that we have an extreme vetting process…there were towns and mayors and leaders speaking out against having any refugees from any Muslim countries coming here to the United States.” She began to think about what she could do not only as a musician, but as a former refugee herself, and called some of her friends.

The Refugee Orchestra Project made its debut performance on May 10, 2016, in a church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The soprano Barbara Quintilliani sang “Ebben? Ne andro lontana,” the haunting aria from the scene in Catalani’s “La Wally” when the heroine flees her home. A teenage violinist named Sammy Andonian played “Yeraz,” a solo piece by the composer Alan Hovhaness, who looked to his Armenian roots for musical material.

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But the soloist who attracted the most attention was Lubana al Quntar, described as “Syria’s first opera singer,” who had come to the United States five months after the start of the conflict. In keeping with her recital programs, which mix Middle Eastern maqams with Western opera, she sang “Sola, perdutta, abbandonata,” Manon’s exile aria from Act III of “Manon Lescaut,” and a traditional Syrian song. The ensemble was made up entirely of Boston-based musicians. Each player, and each soloist, had either sought refuge in the United States or was connected to someone who had done so, usually through family or marriage.

The musicians’ ability levels ranged from professional to amateur, and because they had such busy schedules, rehearsal time for each concert was limited. In choosing repertoire, Yankovskaya looked for pieces that would be interesting but easy to prepare, and focused on the theme of home, exile, and pieces composed by refugees. Each concert ended with “God Bless America,” composed by a Russian Jew who had come to America as a child when his family fled pogroms: Irving Berlin.

“It was very important that musicians come from the community itself, so people see their neighbors, and people they work with,” Yankovskaya said. “I realized that so many people around me had no idea that I or others, their friends, their neighbors, their colleagues were refugees. We tend to see refugees as this Other, that we maybe want to help, maybe not, but that is somehow unrelated to us. So the goal was to bring people from the community, to showcase them on the stage, so that those who are listening could see refugees connecting with them directly.”

Photo © Scott Bump
Photo © Scott Bump

The ensemble’s second concert took place in a Brooklyn church one month later, with an almost entirely new membership drawn from that community. Though Newsweek reported attendance in the pews as only about 60, live streaming via news service NowThis brought the orchestra to many more viewers. In October 2016, the project was nominated for the first Adolph Busch Award, a cash prize to support institutions using music for social good, and near the end of the year, the project put out a call on the Internet for musicians based in Washington D.C. to take part in the third concert.

When Yankovskaya heard about President Donald Trump’s executive order blocking all entry to the U.S. by Syrian refugees, and severely restricting entry from seven mostly Islamic countries, she was surprised and sad but not shocked. A hardliner on immigration and refugees from the beginning of his campaign, he shouted “If I win, they are going back,” at rallies all over the country. The order was implemented so quickly that some refugees who were in transit when it was signed were detained or turned back upon arrival. Though Federal Judge Ann Donnelly quickly handed down a temporary restraining order, the Department of Homeland Security stated they would continue to enforce the order one day later.

“When you decide to move to another country as a refugee, you give your whole life up. Maybe you’re living with friends for two weeks as you prepare to leave. You put all of your money into making a new life. You’ve left your job, you’ve left your friends, you’ve probably come to the capital or whatever city has a consulate. You bought plane tickets,” Yankovskaya said vehemently. “So even something as simple as putting this on hold for 30 days can completely uproot something and turn their life upside down, and suddenly make it impossible for them to come. Putting a ban on refugees, especially the people who were already in the process of going through this, the people who were giving up everything to come here, who were told that they would be allowed to enter…it’s disheartening to think that our politicians have little considerations for the lives that are affected by these actions.”

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The Refugee Orchestra Project does not ask its members to share their stories if they do not volunteer to, but Yankovskaya estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of the musicians are themselves refugees, naming Hungary, Ukraine, South Korea close to the northern border, and South America as some of the origins of refugee members. “There was one elderly German woman who took part in the Rosenstrasse protests,” she said. Those 1943 demonstrations represented some of the only significant and effective opposition by Germans to the events of the Holocaust, and they succeeded in getting 1,800 Jewish men released from transport to the camps.

Despite the now-politically charged implications of taking a stance on refugees, Yankovskaya maintains that the project has no political aims, having no explicit stance on immigration policies or vetting. The project’s Facebook page made no comment on the election of Donald Trump, but instead celebrated the election of Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American lawmaker, to the Minnesota House. “In the arts we have to be aware that artists come from all different backgrounds and viewpoints on all different issues,” she said. “But I think there is a point that’s beyond politics. To me the idea of welcoming individuals from different nations is something that surpasses politics, and just becomes something that’s key to being human, and humanity, and especially to the culture of this country.” ¶