Taking Refuge

Taking Refuge in the Violin

October 20, 2015

The bus ride from downtown Aleppo to Beirut took seventeen hours, but Mariela barely slept as they drove through her embattled homeland to neighboring Lebanon. She was traveling alone, lucky to have secured a student visa and full scholarship to study in America. It was her passport out of war-torn Syria - the ticket that enabled her to board a plane from Beirut to America on July 15, 2013.

Mariela knew she might never see her parents nor brother again, never be able to return home.

I cried the night before I was supposed to leave. I was talking with my mother and I was like 'Maybe I shouldn't go. Maybe we should wait.'

But a kind friend in Florida had already purchased Mariela's plane ticket and both she and her mother knew that Syria held little future for her - for any of them anymore.

The bus from Aleppo was forced to stop several times on the way to Beirut. "We passed through like 50 or 60 checkpoints," Mariela told me in perfect English.

And they were always scared - always suspicious - of my violin case. So I was always opening and closing it [because they thought it might be a gun].

The violin was one of the few items twenty-five year old Mariela was able to bring with her on her journey to America. She had first begun studying the instrument at age nine when she enrolled at the Arabic Institute of Music in Aleppo. Really, she had dreamed of playing the piano, but her family eventually coaxed her into the violin, a much less expensive instrument, especially for beginners.

After graduating from the Arabic Institute of Music in 2004, she then taught younger students there while also studying for her bachelor's degree in business at Aleppo University. She attained her degree in 2013, but only after her final class had been postponed three times because of the war, already in its second year. By then, she was looking for a way out.

Due to a combination of luck and talent, Mariela received a full scholarship and student visa to study music at Manmouth, a small liberal arts college in Illinois. Having already received one bachelor's degree, the college granted Mariela special approval to begin studying for her second bachelor's degree as a junior.

Not surprisingly, the talented violinist thrived at Manmouth, where she found her second home.

The director of the orchestra in Monmouth and her husband were like my family. They were always helping me with English and taking me places like the train station because Manmouth is in a small town with not much transportation.

Knowing it wouldn't be safe to return to Syria, Mariela had applied for asylum as soon as she was settled in America. Eventually, she received refugee status. Appreciating the safety granted by America, she constantly thinks about her family.

I try to talk to my parents everyday on the phone. They don't have electricity or internet. And my sixty-five year old father has to walk towns over just to get water. But at least they have a phone...

Mariela's voice trailed off as she took a moment to think about her family. She recently sponsored her brother to make the perilous journey by boat across the Mediterranean - the route which, as of August, had cost about 2,500 refugees and migrants their lives according to the UN. Fortunately, he made it to Turkey and is now in Greece.

Her parents, however, may never leave Syria.

At their age, it'd be very difficult to find work and learn English. Plus, they've been living in the same house in Aleppo for thirty years.

Complicating matters further, the journey out of Syria has become increasingly hazardous. Only three days after Mariela left, a bus on the same route as hers was stopped and all the passengers were murdered.

We don't know who shot them, but we know the people on the bus were civilians.

With her homeland being ravaged, Mariela takes refuge in her music. She began her master's degree in music at DePaul University in Chicago this Fall. And although only twenty-five, she has already performed at high-profile events across the United States. I had the privilege of seeing her at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on World Refugee Day, around the same time she was honored as a "Champion of Change" at the White House.

Looking toward the future, Mariela envisions using music as a tool for peace.

I want to use my music to be a 'peace ambassador.' I want Syrian refugee kids to be able to know what it's like to hold an instrument and play music. They have been exposed to so much and have seen so many inhumane things.

Just imagine children holding violins instead of weapons and listening to the soothing melody of the strings in place of the booming thunder of gunshots.

Music is an international language. It is a language of peace.


Kibbeh is Mariela's favorite Syrian food. However, she has not made it since coming to the U.S. This recipe is courtesy of the Food Network.

For the Shell:

  • 1 1/2 cups fine bulgur wheat
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (Lamb is also widely used in this dish. I could only find ground turkey at my grocery store and that worked well too.)
  • 1 1/2 cups roughly chopped yellow onions
  • 3 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper

For the Stuffing:

  • 1/2 pound ground beef (or lamb or turkey)
  • 3/4 cups finely chopped yellow onions
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Chopped parsley for garnish

  1. To make the shell, place the bulgur wheat in a bowl and cover it with water. Let sit for 20 minutes then drain the bulgur.
  2. In a large bowl, blend the beef, onions, cumin, salt, and pepper to a paste. Add the strained bulgur and mix well. Use a food processor to combine until the mixture forms into a smooth, pliable dough-like texture. You may add a little ice water while blending, if needed.
  3. To make the stuffing, cook the meat in a large skillet, stirring over medium-high heat until browned, about 4 minutes. Add the onions, salt, allspice, pepper, and cinnamon, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and add the pine nuts. Let sit until cool enough to handle.
  4. To form the kibbeh, shape the raw meat-bulgur mixture into egg-sized balls. Make a hole down the center of each ball with an index finger to form a deep cup with a pointed bottom. Stuff each ball with about one tablespoon of the stuffing. Press down on the sides and top to enclose the filling and reshape into a smooth egg with a pointed top. Repeat with the remaining ingredients.
  5. Preheat the oil to 360 °F (medium-high heat on the stove).
  6. Add the kibbeh balls to the hot oil in batches and cook until golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Two years after moving to the U.S., Mariela poses with her violin in Washington, DC

Mariela performs Bloch movement, Monmouth College, Spring 2015

In this video, Mariela is featured as the violin soloist, Monmouth College, September 2014


Cumin, Cinnamon, Allspice

Bulgur-meat mixture before going into the food processor

Frying up the kibbeh

Kibbeh, hot and ready to eat!