As the world faces the worst refugee crisis since World War II, refugee musicians and singers are using their voices and music to raise awareness about the plight of the 65 million people who have been forced from their homes.
Lubana Al Quntar is one of them. Forced to flee her native Syria after peaceful pro-democracy protests turned into a violent government crackdown and full-blown civil war, the acclaimed soprano and opera singer has made it her mission to share the plight of those she left behind.
Most recently, Al Quntar, 42, performed in Brooklyn with other artists as part of the Refugee Orchestra Project, which was started by conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. She was inspired to form the orchestra after she realized that many of her colleagues and friends didn't know she had come to the U.S. as a refugee from Russia.
"I think many people in this country don’t realize just to what extent we rely on refugees and immigrants in our culture, our society, and our everyday life. In the world of music, I’ve seen how much musical style has been influenced by refugee composers," Yankovskaya told Refinery29.
Yankovskaya, Al Quntar, and the other members of the Refugee Orchestra hope to raise awareness about the plight of refugees through their music, as well as raise funds for aid organizations helping refugee families rebuild their lives. Proceeds from the concert went to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees.
"This is who I am representing now: Syria and all the people in Syria...now, I feel like this is my mission," Al Quntar said. "I just want to be a Syrian singing."
Al Quntar shared her own story of fleeing Syria and finding a new home in the United States with Refinery29.
I was forced to not come back. I’m in danger, but that’s where my family is, where my friends are. I watch their suffering every day through the TV and it is like torture for me.
"About five years ago. I came here when it was the beginning of the revolution in Syria. And by chance, I guess, I got here at just the right time for me."
What was it like when the revolution started in Syria?
"First of all, we felt so happy that people had finally expressed their anger and refused this dictatorship. [The government of Bashar al-Assad], they own the country and it was hell for us. When they started the uprisings, everybody was saying: 'Syrians will not come [out]. They will not, they cannot, because this is a regime that is so violent and so criminal.'
"I was still there for the first three or four months. My friends were part of that. Some of them were captured, some were in prison, some of them died under torture. So, for me, it was really a shock, because we used to hear about this regime and how criminal it is, but to see it in front of your eyes is surprising.
"The first year [of protests in 2011], the people were like: 'We want democracy! We want freedom! We want security!' The people didn’t say: 'We don’t want the regime.' They were hopeful that the regime would change their policies. But when the thing started with the children in the school of Daraa, people they couldn’t accept that. [Editor's note: After writing anti-government slogans on the wall, children and teenage boys were arrested and tortured by al-Assad's forces.] From that, it changed very very dramatically. And the response from the regime was to attack the whole city. Cities, actually. Now, only Damascus and a few other cities are still standing.
"In my nature, I cannot be silent. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. For me, for us as Syrians, it’s so dangerous when you just speak against the regime or against what’s happening."
What was it like to come to the U.S. as a refugee? Were you nervous? Were you scared?
"From the personal side, you have nothing. It’s like you begin a new life from zero. I had to start everything from nothing.
"I was very scared, because I was coming to the unknown. I used to travel — I went to London, I was in Germany. It was the second time for me coming to the U.S., but I came not knowing what the future would be like and what was going to happen. I had nothing here. I didn’t know what to do. I was in the airport looking around me, like 'What?' and thinking, This is unknown.
"So, I didn’t know what to do. My friends were sending me [messages] saying, 'Don’t come back, they have been asking about you,' because they heard they were monitoring me. My parents said, 'We’re happy that you could make it.' But I came alone."
It was an adventure for me, because there was not a Syrian opera singer I could look up to and see what the future is like.
"You know, I don’t remember myself as having not been a singer. I would sing when I was 4 years old. My teachers recorded my singing at school. But the opera life in Syria started really late...they opened the Opera Department and I was the first one who attended. I couldn’t imagine myself as anything but a singer.
"But I didn’t know about the opera life much. It was an adventure for me, because there was not a Syrian opera singer I could look up to and see what the future is like. But I could try and put this on the music map in Syria. It was very challenging and very exciting for me.
"When I sang with the orchestra for the first time as a Syrian opera singer, people were so excited. I was granted two scholarships...to continue my academic studies and get my master's. Then, I participated in this big international competition, the Queen Elizabeth competition in Belgium, where I won the biggest prize. And that was really huge for me, for my career, and for Syria, as well. I think it was the first time for a Syrian to attend this international music competition. And so when I won this international prize, it was really like, Wow!"
"It’s sad that this person has made it for so long because he has his supporters...I would say that the United States is made up of people who have been refugees from the start. So, how is it possible to treat people that are in desperate need just to be alive, just to be safe, this way?
"It’s not a matter of being like, 'Yeah, I want a nice life. I want a nice car.' It’s not like that. It’s a matter of life and death. People are dying and everyone is watching them die every day, one by one...we’re talking about children, we’re talking about women. We’re talking about people, ordinary people."
You know, I loved music so much...now in this country, I even cannot do that. It’s like the door really shut in front of me.
"Of course I would go back. Of course. I was forced to not come back. I’m in danger, but that’s where my family is, where my friends are. I watch their suffering every day through the TV and it is like torture for me. It's like, ‘Okay, I’m here, I’m safe,’ and I can’t even enjoy anything, I can’t. I feel so...I don’t deserve this. My family has no electricity. I cannot enjoy anything here...this is the most horrific thing that you can ever see in your life. You’re watching the TV and it is like a movie what’s happening."
With all that is going on, how do you find joy in your day-to-day life? Is it through music?
"I don’t, I don’t. I don’t, actually. For me this is...you know, I loved music so much...now, in this country, I even cannot do that. It’s like the door really shut in front of me."
"We're one. We're people. [Refugees,] we’re just like other people. We feel the same, we have the same dreams. I hope that they understand that."
What is your advice for young women?
"Women in general, especially in Syria, are the highest prize that you can even imagine. I see the young Syrian girls who made it to Europe or to another safe place — I see how strong they are. So, I’m not really worried about them, because [strength] is in their nature. And I see my students, in Europe, even in Syria, how they cope with all these difficulties. They create something so beautiful from nothing."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Refinery29 is committed to covering the women behind the headlines of the refugee crisis. Read the full multimedia feature, "Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise," here. More coverage on the human faces of the world's refugee crisis can be found here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lidiya Yankovskaya as a composer. She is a conductor. Refinery29 regrets the error.