When the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2012, Mariela Shaker was preparing to graduate from Aleppo University. At 23, Shaker was already an accomplished violinist, teaching at the Arabic Institute of Music in Aleppo and performing at festivals across Syria. Last Monday, on the stage of Kresge Recital Hall, Shaker remembered picking her way through ruins to teach music lessons.
“I have risked my life to keep music alive in that city,” Shaker said.
Shaker described how she and her students hid under tables when they heard bombs falling in other parts of the city. She said that she was less afraid of death than of watching her future disappear. In 2013, Shaker began applying to continue her education abroad. She was overjoyed to receive an email from Director of the Eleanor Stellyes Center for Global Studies Bren Tooley, offering her a position at Monmouth College.
At Monmouth, Shaker worked with Director of String Activities Carolyn Suda, who joined her former student onstage for an encore, accompanying her on the cello. Suda informed the audience that when Shaker first arrived at Monmouth she was astonished at her dedication. Shaker would spend seven to eight hours in the practice rooms at a time, sometimes sleeping there.
Shaker graduated from Monmouth with an honor for excellence in music performance. Since then, she has played for members of the U.S. Legislature, Cate Blanchett and Queen Rania of Jordan among other admirers. In 2015, she was named a Champion of Change for World Refugees by President Obama. She is currently a high profile representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Shaker’s goal is to provide educational opportunities to students living in war zones. She said that this mission is about more than just learning. Her reasoning is that the hope, ambition and creative outlets that come with education can help save the lives of students who find themselves in the position she was in not so long ago.
Shaker’s activism is inseparable from her music. Between Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor and Sonata and Mozart’s Sonata in E Minor, she gave a presentation, offering the audience a glimpse of present-day Syria. Classical music swelled over images of Aleppo before and after the war. Shaker looked on with the audience in solemn silence. After the presentation, Shaker urged audience members to reach out to refugees in their own communities to offer ESL tutoring or just friendship.
“Refugees have always been an integral part of this country,” Shaker declared.
By the time Shaker asked Suda to join her onstage, she had already received three standing ovations. As the duo delivered a soaring final note, people stood once more. Suda embraced Shaker, beaming with pride.
“Her enormous talent and love have changed the world we live in,” Suda said.