For World Refugee Day this year, we are launching a campaign, #FaceTowardsHope, to feature the stories of refugees—their strength, their resilience, and their hopes for the future.
In 2013, at age 23, Mariela Shaker was dodging bombs on her way to internet cafes where she would spend hours “emailing people like crazy,” she said, in order to flee the war that had consumed her hometown of Aleppo in Syria. At the time, Mariela was pursuing a bachelor’s in Business Administration at the University of Aleppo and was the youngest violin teacher at the Arabic Institute of Music where she would risk her life just to get to the classroom every day.
“I was so determined to find an opportunity to have my life back. It was tireless work, risking my life,” she said. “The war did not scare me, losing my dreams did.”
Mariela began playing the violin at age 12, and by age 15 she was desperately searching for internet connection in order to reach people who could help her pursue her dreams outside of Syria. After years of seeking opportunities in the United States, Monmouth College granted Mariela a full-tuition scholarship that allowed her to flee Syria and complete her second bachelor’s degree in Music performance in 2013.
To escape, Mariela took what would normally be a 4–5 hour bus route out of Syria, but which ultimately took 17 hours due to dangerous roads, frequent checkpoints, and falling bombs. Shaker said Syrian soldiers frequently thought her violin case was a gun. That was when she was the most afraid, she said.
“I did not have any option,” she said. “Either to stay, give up and get killed in the street, or to risk dying on the road to get out of there. I chose the latter.”
Once in the United States, Mariela heard that three buses on the same route were bombed and her family physician killed. While studying in Illinois, she realized that while the conflict in Syria continued, she would not be able to return home.
“Home is not home anymore; my friends died while trying to fight for their lives. ... I can't imagine the journey people have taken just to be safe,” she said. “My home is a city of ghosts now—they fought for their lives but many did not make it.”
Since seeking asylum in the United States and graduating from Monmouth, Shaker has spoken and performed at over 70 venues around the world, sharing her story and educating people on refugee issues. In 2015 she was honored at the White House and named as Champion of Change for World Refugees Day by President Barack Obama. She said in her travels she has been consistently impressed by the resilience and dedication of refugees from around the world.
“I think the best thing about refugees is that they are able to use the tragedy to triumph,” she said. “These people are desperate to have opportunity, they are not coming as a burden. We are not coming to survive, but to thrive.”
Now, Mariela is a violin professor at Monmouth College and an accomplished violinist. She continues to advocate for refugees through her performances and work with UNHCR.
“So many people have aided me in getting where I am, I cannot imagine not helping other people in return,” she said. “Now, I am trying to use music as a bridge for peace; spreading peace and love over war and hatred.”
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