Syrian Refugee Finds Strength in Music

By Jamie Sokolik

The Syrian refugee crisis that reached a tipping point in the summer of 2015 has been a long time in coming. The first anti-government protests started in 2011 and quickly evolved into civil war. Before ISIS, mass exodus and international involvement, current School of Music student Mariela Shaker was studying economics and business administration at Aleppo University in Aleppo, Syria.

“I wanted badly to study music,” she says. “Unfortunately, there are not many opportunities for that in Syria, especially in classical music.”

Toward the end of her senior year, the violinist traveled to London to audition for the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. She got in, but her final class at Aleppo University was delayed, and she wasn’t able to enroll in graduate school. It was around this time that civil war broke out in the country.

“My opportunities got strained more and more,” she says. “There was no sense of future. Everything was closed. I would be walking with bombings everywhere. You don’t know when you are going to die—if it is today or tomorrow. It’s a matter of time because something very strange is going on in your city.”

Shaker realized that her chance to leave Syria lay in applying to foreign schools. Believing that she’d have to give a live audition to enroll in a music program, she stopped thinking about getting an education in music and started applying for any scholarship offered to Syrian students seeking refuge.

“I started to apply to programs in politics, in business, in economy—everything,” she says. “I sent more than 50 or 60 applications. At home, we didn’t even have electricity, we didn’t have water, but still I was running under bombing situations to Internet cafes to communicate with people and seek help.”

One opportunity offered Shaker the lifeline she needed. Monmouth College, in the small Illinois town of Monmouth, offered a full-tuition scholarship specifically for Syrian students. The school allowed her to audition over Skype, and she was accepted into the bachelor’s in music program. After months of searching for a sponsor to help with living expenses, she arrived in the United States in July 2013. Having transferred credit from Aleppo University, Shaker started as a junior. She quickly started thinking about graduate school.

“I applied to so many schools, and I got many offers from around the country, but DePaul was always my first choice,” she says. “I got a full-tuition scholarship. I am so grateful.”

Although Shaker misses the close network she found at Monmouth, she loves the conservatory atmosphere at DePaul. She is grateful for the opportunity to study at DePaul and is proud to be a part of the School of Music family. “It was painful in the beginning,” she says, “but I’ve improved so much already. I am working on not just making music, but concentrating on the small details. Being with so many other violin players helps to motivate you. It’s great to have this positive competition.”

Since arriving in the United States, Shaker has made a huge impression not just at her schools, but also nationally. President Barack Obama named her a 2015 Champion of Change, for which she was recognized at a White House reception on June 25.

“It is a great honor, but it’s also a responsibility,” she says. “I want to be a peace ambassador. I want to use music to heal and establish peace and love all over the world. I truly believe that music will help heal the pain this world has felt.”

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