SHERIDAN — Mariela Shaker decided she had to leave home after an airstrike hit her university. Shaker had stopped by to pick up copies of her transcripts when she was forced to take cover from a rocket attack that killed more than 80 people. Though she was studying business, Shaker dreamed of being a concert violinist, and the experience convinced her that pursuing that dream would require fleeing the city where she grew up.
Saturday, Shaker will again realize that dream when she performs at Sheridan College. But the performance will be accompanied by a story of her home and why she was forced to leave.
In 2012, Aleppo became the central battleground of a civil war between the Syrian government and Islamic rebels. For years, the city endured a relentless bombardment from indiscriminate airstrikes. The battle became marked by the scores of civilian casualties the fighting in the densely-populated city inflicted.
Amid the fighting, Shaker studied business administration at the University of Aleppo and worked as a violin teacher in a nearby music school. Her music lessons were frequently interrupted by rocket attacks that forced her and her students to take cover under the desks.
“I used to go to the music school not knowing if I would make it back home, as rockets were falling everywhere randomly,” Shaker said.
Despite the risks, though, Shaker and her students kept returning.
“We believed in music; we wanted to try to have hope despite all of the difficulties and hardships we lived through in Aleppo,” Shaker said. “We thought it was a beautiful thing to do in spite of all that was going on.”
The attack on the University of Aleppo came in 2013.
“That encouraged me more to try and find my way out of Syria,” Shaker said. “I wanted to have a life. I wanted to be able to dream.”
Shaker spent the next six months ducking into internet cafes whenever she got the chance to apply to graduate schools abroad. She was accepted into a music program in London but was unable to attend because an exam she needed to take to graduate from the University of Aleppo was repeatedly postponed due to the bombing.
Eventually, she received a scholarship offer to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in music at Monmouth College, a liberal arts school in Illinois. To seize the opportunity, however, she first had to make it out of the besieged city.
A friend from the United States booked her a flight out of Beirut, but transportation to the Lebanese city was limited.
A neighbor told Shaker and her mother about a bus, unaffiliated with any company, that would make the trip. There was no guarantee the bus was safe or reliable, but Shaker decided she needed to take the risk.
“Either I would take that risk or stay in Aleppo forever and wait for my destiny,” Shaker said.
The trip was scheduled to take seven hours; it took more than 17. Shaker said the bus went through 50 or 60 checkpoints manned by soldiers and, because of the destruction and destroyed roads, the bus driver got lost.
“After 10 hours on the bus, we found out we were still in Aleppo,” Shaker said.
The bus eventually made it out through a route that was not intended for vehicles. A few days later, a bus traveling the same route was attacked by snipers.
Shaker arrived at Monmouth College in 2013. She graduated in two years and received a scholarship to attend a master’s program for music performance at DePaul University. She graduated that program in 2017.
Since arriving in the U.S., Shaker has performed widely and shared her story with audiences in the hope her experiences will raise awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees. In 2015, she performed at the Kennedy Center in celebration of World Refugee Day and was honored by President Obama as a Champion of Change at the White House that same year.
“Now my dream is not just to be a concert violinist, but also to be able to carry a message of my people in Syria,” Shaker said.
Shaker’s performance Saturday will be part of the “Celebrate the Arts” festival in Sheridan. Erin Hanke, the director of the Whitney Center for the Arts, said she hopes Shaker’s story will expand the worldview of people attending the festival.
“We would like it to be as diverse as possible,” Hanke said. “Not only will Mariela represent the more classical form of art — with her music performance — I think she will illustrate one of the many powers art has, which is to tell stories, and to inform and instruct and inspire.”
Hanke added that Shaker’s performance will end with a question and answer session, which will give the community a chance to interact with her directly.
“She wants to engage with the community here,” Hanke said. “And I think that is a really important element of the arts that the best performers and artists and speakers understand; they don’t just want to be on a pedestal, they want to convey a lesson or story or idea.”
For her part, Shaker said she hopes, through her performances, to open people’s eyes to different human experiences.
“I would like for people to be able to touch and feel the Syrian war, the suffering of these people, and convince them that people are people whether they are from Syria or the U.S.,” Shaker said. “Hopefully if we could at least understand the pain of others, we will have a different world.”