"I Knew It Would Be Hard Not To See My Parents And Brother Again."

Photo: Courtesy UNHCR

When Mariela Shaker was a young girl, she used to dream about becoming an international violinist and traveling to the United States—she just never thought that when she did arrive, she would be fleeing a war back home in Syria. Shaker, now 24, is one of the roughly 4 million Syrians to flee the war-ravaged country. She’s also one of the very few to be granted asylum in the United States. As of February of this year, the U.S. had taken in just 335 Syrian refugeesthat’s .0085 percent—despite the fact that the conflict is now in its fifth year and there’s no end in sight. We spoke with Mariela, just 24 years old, about her experience as a young woman who has left her entire life behind.


People in Syria are struggling to get food and the basics of life.

Mariela Shaker
Mariela came to the U.S. two years ago on a student visa and was eventually granted asylum. When she arrived, her resume already included a degree from Aleppo University and experience teaching at the Arabic Institute of Music. Now, her qualifications are rapidly expanding. Last month, she graduated with another degree in music studies from Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois, and in the fall she will go on to pursue a Master’s at DePaul University in Chicago. On June 20, she performed violin at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. to a packed house as part of UNHCR’s World Refugee Day. And on Thursday, she spoke about challenges faced by refugees at an event at the White House.

"I love Syria so much,” says Shaker. “I love the people there. I feel sorry for all that has happened there. I hope one day we can bring peace.” Here’s what else she had to say about escaping her country, saying goodbye to her family, and starting over in the U.S.

Syria Before The War

“Syria used to be great, but not now. As I said, I used to be a student and a music teacher and I have so many friends, so it was very nice. After the war, right now, we don’t have electricity. We don’t have water. There’s no safety.”
Her Brave Plan To Escape Syria
“I was trying to send emails and trying to complete my education after I saw that my future was in danger. I had nothing to do in Syria, so I was trying to do my best to get out. I was in touch with several universities, and finally I found out about one college and it worked out to get a degree in music.”
Making The Decision To Leave
“It was a very hard decision, especially after I got the visa and everything. I knew that it was going to be hard to say goodbye. I knew it would be hard not to see my parents and brother again.”

Her Scary 17-hour Drive To Beirut, Where She Would Fly To The US
“It was very scary. The night before, I was saying to my mom, ‘Please, I don’t want to take this risk and travel.’ She said, ‘Well, your friend from America, she booked your flight and you are going to miss it. You have to be strong and try to make it.’ Two days after I made the trip from Aleppo, three buses [on the same route] were shot at. We don’t know who was shooting them, but we know that they were innocent civilians and they got killed. I didn’t know if I needed to be happy that I arrived safely or if I needed to be sad because I knew some people who were arriving on these buses. It was just very sad. It’s very depressing what’s going on.”

Keeping In Touch With Family
“Already I forget their faces because I’ve talked to them on video only maybe once or twice since I came here. They don’t have electricity or Internet, so I call them on a regular telephone. There’s no video.”

She Misses Home
“I miss my mom so much. She was always supportive to everything I do, so I miss her the most.

I also miss my friends. I wish I could help them to have future, to have a way, a safe way, a safe living.

Mariela Shaker
Stepping Off The Plane In The US
“I was amazed when [the plane] landed. It was like going to a different world. [My friends who picked me up at the airport] thought I was almost drunk because I was just so amazed. I couldn’t talk for the first one or two hours.”

Her American Friends
“They care about me. Sometimes when I don’t speak English very well, they don’t feel that I’m weird. Instead they help me and they correct me. And now they are posting on Facebook about my concerts and how I’m being honored at the White House. I feel they are so, so supportive.”

Her Important Plans To Help Refugee Children
“The Syrian children at the refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon, they have been exposed to many inhumane things and were forced to abandon their former lives. They have seen enough, and I feel that music is a good way to return the smile to their faces and the joy to their lives.

I have a dream to convey to these children the choice of carrying a musical instrument versus carrying a weapon.

Mariela Shaker
After the Kennedy Center recital, I was able to raise 352 dollars and I have a plan to start with this very small amount to buy maybe two or three musical instruments. I plan to start from this point and make this project bigger, and be able to get some musical instruments to these kids and to direct several music workshops there.”


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