By Ricky O’Bannon

In early January, Music for Life International Artistic Director George Mathew stood on the stage at Carnegie Hall to make a promise.

The organization was holding its final concert in its Shostakovich for the Children of Syria campaign, which raised money for relief efforts for refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war.

Still, Mathew knew it was one thing to play music in New York’s Carnegie Hall to raise money for Syrian refugees, but bringing that music to the people the concerts were meant to help had a different meaning entirely and something Mathew said had always been a goal.

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Zaatari Camp 3
Top: Music For Life International concert at
Carnegie Hall in January. Middle: The road
leading to Za'atari. Bottom: View of the
refugee camp in Za'atari. 

The morning of the concert, Mathew received word from the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University that they would provide a grant to help take musicians to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan where nearly 81,000 Syrians fleeing the war have settled.

“We made the declaration that we were going [to take] the music to the people who needed it the most,” Mathew said.

As the audience and orchestra applauded, Mathew said he started to wonder what exactly he got himself into. After seven months of planning, Mathew and a string quartet will begin a weeklong residency of concerts and music education programs at Za’atari starting Aug. 21.

Music for Life International partnered with the Jordanian group Questscope for the residency. Questscope trains mentor sand case managers from the refugee community to work with disadvantaged youth in non-formal education programs. These mentors and musicians from the quartet will give introductory lessons and hold music education workshops for the youth at the Za’atari camp.

For refugees who have lost so much because of the war in Syria, the relief needs are many, and music is seldom at the top of that list. Mathew has traveled to Jordan preparing for the residency, and he said the case for music was eloquently articulated to him by one of the mentors at the camp.

“People forget that [these kids] need more than what the UN agencies and the relief organizations are offering,” Mathew said the mentor told him. “They need music, they need art, they need education, and they need play."

Three months ago, Mathew said his group bought several dozen recorders to give to the mentors at the camp, which he said were a big hit.

“I was delighted last week when I went [to Za’atari] that there was a small group of young women who were beginning to tackle notation,” Mathew said. “That was from [a place of] not having ever seen a recorder until a few months ago.”

During the residency, the group will purchase violins in Jordan to bring to the camp. Mathew said members of the string quartet — which includes violinist Mary Ann Mumm who retired from the MET Opera Orchestra, violinist Deborah Greitzer of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, violist Craig Mumm of the MET Opera Orchestra and cellist Rosanna Butterfield, a current fellow at the New World Symphony and Verbier Festival Orchestra — will give introductory string lessons to Za’atari youth.

“We are very interested in going to a space where we don't know how it will unfold,”

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Recorders 1241X840
Top: George Mathew giving a lesson on music notation to Questscope mentors. Bottom: Mentors work with recorders in preparation for the August fellowship.

Mathew said. “We're open to the idea that it can only be a good thing, and they're also open to that idea.”

For Mathew, the success of the residency won’t depend on the music they play or how quickly children at the camp can learn the basics of playing violin but rather on how well they can engage with people at Za’atari. Part of that, he said, is acknowledging and examining an inherent power differential between he and the musicians and the people who have had to flee their homes with little.

“When people like us walk into a refugee camp, we appear to be just oozing power. We have choices. We can come and go as we want. We can get on a plane and come back to New York. We can do all of those things,” Mathew said. “In many ways, we are oblivious to what that does, but they are not.”

This is a concept he said their partner Questscope believes in strongly and why he believes it is important both to empower the children who receive lessons to play an instrument but also to give them agency using principles of El Sistema to teach their peers in the camp. Music, Mathew said, provides a unique opportunity for cultural exchange and understanding because the act of cooperative music making requires both the powerful and powerless to listen to one another.

“What music [tells] us is that the most important, difficult and demanding activity in both music and life is listening,” he said. “When you listen first you listen from the perspective of yourself. When you listen again you listen from a perspective maybe a little bit beyond yourself. And when you listen from the perspective of the other, well that's when you start having a chance of being in tune.”

Music For Life International is currently raising money through a Kickstarter campaign to help fund part of the expenses for the residency in Za’atari. Mathew said any money beyond the $5,000 goal will go to instruments and music supplies for children at the refugee camp.