Syrian students find relief from civil war in music studies at Baylor, MCC

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Posted: Sunday, September 1, 2013 12:01 am

When Andrey Mukaddasi introduces himself to his new college classmates, his accent instantly prompts questions about where he is from.

“I’ll tell them I’m from Syria, and they say, ‘Awesome!’ and then I say, ‘You know Syria has a civil war right now?’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh,’ ” said Mukaddasi, 24, a half-Russian and half-Syrian violinist who is beginning music studies at Baylor University and McLennan Community College.

“It’s strange that they don’t know (about the war), just because Syria has been all over the headlines in the past week.”

Those headlines have included charges that the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons against opposition groups, killing potentially hundreds of civilian families in the process.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama asked Congress to give him authorization to launch a military strike against the country, which would involve the U.S. in a civil war that has lasted for more than two years.

Mukaddasi and friend Amjad Dabi left their families in the Syrian capital of Damascus last fall with hopes of starting college in the United States. They were encouraged and aided by Baylor music professor Brad Bolen, whom they first met in 2010 through a summer musical workshop sponsored by the nonprofit group American Voices.

This year, Dabi earned both a presidential scholarship and a music scholarship to study piano pedagogy at Baylor. Mukaddasi is taking classes at MCC, while he also studies violin at Baylor.

‘Weird feeling’

Mukaddasi admits there’s “a bit of a weird feeling” to see the country where he is furthering his musical craft move toward military action against Syria, where his parents and three sisters still reside.

Dabi agrees.

“It’s international relations, so it’s hard to predict what is going to happen,” the 23-year-old said. “You have no control over it. All you can do is continue to have a positive outlook and focus on yourself, the things you’re doing in your life and hope that it works out.”

In some ways, he said, being at home with his family would be easier than hearing news and social media accounts of what is transpiring in his homeland.

“Being close to your family, it would at least momentarily put your mind at ease,” said Dabi, who first came to the U.S. through a high school exchange student program in North Carolina. “But also (there is danger) whenever someone has to leave their house, because life has to go on. Even now in Damascus, people are still trying to have normal lives, as impossible as it may seem.”

While keeping an eye on tensions at home, Dabi and Mukaddasi also are focused on their music lessons and adapting to life in Waco.

Dabi has joined the Baylor Men’s Choir as a baritone-bass singer and he was invited to participate in the Baylor Line on-field at Saturday’s season opener against Wofford University.

Mukaddasi is studying with the Baylor Symphony Orchestra and also played jazz for the first time with music students at MCC.

Dabi and Mukaddasi have received financial support and other help from Waco churches as well as Bolen. The Baylor professor checks in with both students daily and takes them on errands around town, though he still is teaching them that Americans tend to shop for groceries once a week instead of daily.

“These are my kids,” Bolen said, smiling at the two young men at his office in Waco Hall. “I promised their parents I would take care of them if they came over. I’m surrogate daddy.”

After first meeting them in the 2010 Youth Excellence on Stage Academy in Syria, Bolen communicated with Dabi and Mukaddasi almost daily via social media.

The following summer, when the civil uprisings began, American Voices canceled the YES Academy scheduled for Syria, opting instead to go to neighboring Jordan. Mukaddasi surprised Bolen by showing up for the Jordan sessions, even though travel was dangerous.

“When the problems started in Syria, I always thought that the teachers might leave, because we have Russian teachers at the conservatory,” Mukaddasi said. “I looked to work with foreign teachers, because now . . . all the good Syrian teachers have left.”

Bolen thought he had succeeded in convincing Mukaddasi to leave the country for good in 2012 when the student again snuck out of Syria to attend the YES Academy in Lebanon. The border between the two countries closed just 30 minutes after Mukaddasi entered Lebanon, so his return home when the session ended seemed unlikely.

Bolen gave Mukaddasi a few hundred dollars as he left, believing he would need it to survive until he could find work to remain in Lebanon.

“I got home to Texas, and like a day later he tells me, ‘Oh, I’m back home in Syria,’ ” Bolen said, laughing. “He paid a taxi (to get into Syria). I’m happy he got home, but it scared me.”

By that time, leaders from American Voices offered Dabi and Mukaddasi an apartment in Thailand to live in while they applied for college in the U.S. Bolen also set up an American Voices scholarship at the Baylor School of Music to raise money to help the students and others from the area he hoped would come to Waco.

Making the move

Last fall, Mukaddasi finally decided to take the offer and began selling some of his possessions to finance the move. One day when he was attempting to sell his laptop, he ended up driving into a firefight in which rockets struck a building in front of him.

About a month later, a car bomb went off outside of Dabi’s home, leaving him with several lacerations to his face and mouth and a deep scar on his forehead. The rest of his family escaped the incident unharmed, but some children in the neighborhood were killed.

As violence escalated, leaving seemed more appealing, but still carried some risks. Dabi, for example, would be eligible to be drafted if he was not in school. If he left the country and then was unable to enroll at a university, he could have been prevented from returning to Syria in the future.

Also, both students cannot lean on their families for financial support and needed significant financial assistance to cover everything from tuition and school supplies to housing and health care.

Because the civil war has decimated the value of a Syrian pound, Dabi’s parents, a civil engineer and an architect, together earn less than the equivalent of $100 per month. Mukaddasi’s parents receive about $250 monthly in retirement benefits.

“You leave your country, but if the Baylor scholarship didn’t work out, you would be left without an education,” Dabi said.

“The decision was, will you risk an entire education, or will you stay and risk your life? I think as the situation became more and more turbulent in Syria, we balanced the odds and decided it would probably be better to work in safety.”

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