Refugee Camp Concert – Beirut, Lebanon

Rebecca writes about her latest adventure in Lebanon on December 4, 2016. Festival goers will remember Ani Kalayjian from Mim 2012 and Moni Simeonov from earlier this May:

Thank you Moni, Thomas, Ani, Maya, Alejandro, and Ahmad. Without each of you, today’s remarkable outreach would never have been realized.

Cellist Ani Kalayjian, tenor Randall Bills, and mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein perform in Said Gawash/Photo credit: Alejandro Gomez-Meade

It all began with instruction from American filmmaker and photographer Alejandro Gomez-Meade: “Here’s the location to tell your Uber or taxi. I’ve chosen this [meeting point] not because it’s the closest but because it’s incredibly easy to find. In Arabic you can tell them Medni Reyadeah and they’ll know. When you see a huge stadium just ask the driver to drop you off in front of it, on the main road. That’s where I’ll be waiting.”

Waiting at the the wrong stadium

We were too many to fit into one, so we traveled in two Ubers: myself, violinist Moni Simeonov, cellist Ani Kalayjian, tenor Randall Bills, and mezzo-soprano Kristin Gornstein. Fingers crossed, we would reunite and meet Alejandro. We made it to the so called stadium but after an hour, even circling the entire stadium, we still didn’t see Alejandro. During our wait on the sidewalk, a kind man came to ask if we were lost and in need of assistance. (How did we ever manage prior to cell phones?) I suppose we were a bit of a spectacle, with our American-Asian-Bulgarian-Armenian looks and matching carbon fiber cases slung on our backs. After a time we found a spot with wifi in a phone store and as we shared our story the friendly and curious employee informed us that we were at the wrong stadium. Oh dear! On the bright side, thankfully both Ubers brought us to the wrong stadium. On wifi we finally connected with Alejandro who made his way towards us.

With lots of bright smiles and handshakes, we met Alejandro along with his fiancé Elisa Volpi Spagnolini (an Italian working for a small NGO) and our escort, a third generation Palestinian refugee from Shatila camp, Ahmad Halabi.

We took a short walk along city streets and then began walking downhill on a smaller road where we stopped at a barber shop. Ahmad is the proud business owner of this hair salon about the size of a bedroom, neatly and thoughtfully organized. Speaking of thoughtful, as we stood in front of the shop we observed the longest and most meticulous haircut and shave occur. Turning on one of his own recordings, Ahmad shares his passion for rapping and hip hop. Alejandro had another friend and had recently found out he was a fire breather. He had gone to buy gasoline to perform for us so we waited.


Surprise overture to the concert. Photo credit: Alejandro Gomez-Meade

It is a very busy street corner with lots of passing cars/motos, men hanging out, and children playing. Looking to the left you see barbed wire, a demilitarized zone and the stadium. In the other direction the street descended into Shatila refugee camp. Across from the salon & on the edge of Shatila is another refugee camp called Said Gawash. According to a local resident there are 450 homes within the big structure. This is where we would perform our impromptu concert. We were told unlike Shatila, this camp is not run by militia and is more peaceful. I looked up and saw people peering down from a small balcony and from on the roof.

In the middle of the street Mohammad, a Syrian refugee, lit his torch. Torch in one hand and a clear plastic bottle of gasoline in the other. Over and over he filled his mouth with gasoline, leaned his head back, brought up the torch and a giant stream of fire lit the dark street. It was an alarming and incredible sight to see. This had to be the most amazing overture to any concert!

Highlighted in red is Said Gawash. To the left is the stadium. The star is Ahmad's salon. The bottom right corner is Sabra - the road into Shatila.

We followed Ahmad across the street, up some steps and along the side of the structure. We walked through narrow alleyways, zig-zagging left and right. We picked our spot, one area where 3 alleys met. It was dimly lit, but a man jiggled some wires (yikes, there are lots of wires!) and like magic, there was light. In order to allow for passing foot traffic, the string trio had to get creative with spacing. Elisa had carried a small white stool for Ani to sit on. Ani and Moni were next to one alley and across from them I was beside a steep stairwell. We had received permission from the leader of the camp, but the residents had no idea we would be playing. As we began to play, a crowd formed. We mixed it up with both popular and classical tunes. Some people passed through but most people stayed to listen. In between pieces, we had little kids tapping us to exchange hellos and toothy smiles.


Our special “feature” in the concert was Randall and Kristin singing La Ci Daren la Mano from Don Giovanni. The sounds of their voices filling that space was incredible. I, myself, was “blown away;” so, can you imagine what the residents experienced?! Alejandro remarked that in his one year living and working in the camps, during our concert he witnessed for the first time Palestinian, Syrian and Bangladeshi refugees standing together. High level diplomacy, international accords, formidable financial investment, peace keeping forces and altruistic volunteer efforts have all been tried in this war torn region over many painful decades. Music, this day, proved an even more incredibly powerful harmonizing influence.

Photo credit: Alejandro Gomez-Meade

After wrapping the concert, we locked up our instruments and belongings in Ahmad’s salon. We followed him into Shatila, a camp originally set up for Palestinian refugees in 1949. One square mile, originally intended for 2,000 people, currently is home to 40,000 people. We paused by the Sabra and Shatila massacre memorial of 1982. It was dark and the door was locked but someone came by and gestured. He reached his arm through a small opening and unlocked the door for us. Cell phone lights illuminated the dark stone memorial with pictures and names of the thousands that perished.


Alex in the center (with scarf), fire breather (black vest), and Ahmad (red shirt).

Ahmad’s incredible hospitality extended throughout the evening. He treated everyone to “Chinese” – toasted wraps filled with spicy delights. Next we walked to his family home where we removed our shoes and climbed to the 2nd floor where his father and step-mother reside. Ahmad’s sister, her husband and little boy live on the first floor. Ahmad’s home is almost finished on the floor above. On his parents level, there is a kitchen to the right and on the left is a TV/living/bed-room. We all sat and his father’s wife served us bright colored juices, bananas (his sister peeled them open for each of us), green & red apples. His dad said his sister loves Asian, almond-shaped eyes. He asked if it was OK to take a picture of me and send to her. Alejandro became fast friends with Ahmad who is featured in his upcoming documentary “This is the Camp”. Ahmad kept telling us that he may not have money but he has lots of love. We experienced it a lot during our time with him.

Alejandro has been living in Beirut for the past year. He told us of his own experience, living in Shatila for a month. It took a month of negotiations between the Fatah militia of Shatila to be granted permission & protection for filming. He lived in a guest house offered to traveling doctors who work at the MSF clinic. The clinic, also the main location for Fatah, was empty when he lived there because many of the doctors went home for the holidays. He said the one time he tried to take a shower, the toxic water burned his skin. I asked how he managed for the rest of his stay. He said, “I didn’t shower.” Alejandro has encountered many refugees and said these are the men that many think are terrorists but what he’s seen are they are guys with the same passions and interests as any other man. I look forward to seeing his film.

Listening, learning and connecting with Ahmad, Alejandro and Elisa, I realized something. In anticipation of this performance, I admittedly became anxious. I recognized the feeling which was similar to the one leading up to my first performance in juvenile hall. Despite all my travels, these were environments that felt especially foreign. I questioned how our gift of music could connect or seem relevant to the listeners. I am again reminded that despite seemingly endless complexity and tragedy in the world, the bottom line is that we are all humans with common aspirations. We share a desire for connection, belonging, significance and I think, most of all, love. After today I am thankful for so many things. One of those things is for the mighty gift of music to be a shared experience with people from all walks, from grand concert halls of San Francisco to an alleyway in Said Gawash.


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