In Syria, Sari Alesh was a professional violinist. War changed all that.
Grace, gratitude, and wise pragmatism permeate every word carefully chosen and softly spoken by 34-year-old Sari Alesh. He’s on the phone with me after walking home from the bus stop in a wild, mid-February snowstorm. The uncharacteristic weather has put our town in a tailspin, but for Alesh, it’s just one minor inconvenience in a life shot through with devastating losses, deadly hazards, and tragic interruptions.
Alesh came to Victoria in 2016, one young man among the hundreds of Syrian refugees who fled an impossible situation thousands of miles away. Most of these new arrivals had little or no ability to speak English. After a year of support from self-organized refugee sponsor groups, they were expected to transition to a more independent existence and make their own way here, in whatever ways they could.
For Alesh, this meant a whole new “career”: juggling three low-wage jobs for most hours of the day and night just to keep himself afloat. It’s a far cry from his pre-war life as a professional musician in Syria—playing violin for the symphony, touring with mega-star Lebanese singer Fairouz—but he says he is grateful just to be here, and be safe. His brother, sister, and mother remain in Syria; their daily experience is something Alesh would rather not discuss.
He describes growing up in a family where arts were a natural part of life. His father, now deceased, was a fine artist; he and his siblings learned violin as kids. “We all started at the same time,” he says in his quiet, accented, fluent English. “They didn’t study music at university; they just learned music for fun.” Alesh made it his main focus, went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in violin from the High Institute of Music in Damascus, and played with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra for six years. He taught music for nearly a decade in public and private schools. “I used to perform with a lot of bands in Syria and Europe [and] with a lot of orchestras in Germany, Italy, and in the Middle East. I used to play Arabic music as well, but my study was Western classical music.”
And then, war. An unfathomable, devastating shift from a life of daily practice, rehearsal, and performance to a daily life of survival. Alesh first ended up in Turkey, where he acquired some basics of the language and found a bit of solace learning Turkish folk music. He eventually applied for refugee status in Canada, and considers himself lucky: he feels that his musical background must have helped him get relatively easier approval. His Victoria sponsor family was well aware of his background, and arranged for him to meet with Ajtony Csaba, music director and conductor of the UVic orchestra.
Csaba evaluated Alesh’s playing soon after he arrived, and surmised that the six-year, war-induced hiatus from rigorous orchestral playing had taken its toll on certain foundational physical aspects of his technique, but after a few tune-up coaching sessions, the young Syrian was enthusiastically welcomed to join the violin section of the student orchestra. “He was a fun player to have around,” Csaba reports. “He had a great amount of joy…there was nothing obligatory in his approach to orchestra playing. One could sense the free will and positive relation to everything that is music. His approach to everyday human social contacts was very easygoing and carefree, and that was very helpful for everyone, and also for him, in starting to mingle and build social connections.”
During that first year in Victoria, Alesh studied English and played in the orchestra at UVic, and was interviewed on CBC radio. Because he had acquired French during his education in Syria, he was invited to be a substitute music teacher at École Victor-Brodeur. He devoted himself to acquiring the English language so he could speak with much more than basic proficiency.
Alesh was encouraged to explore taking a masters degree in violin performance at UVic, but as his first subsidized year in Canada ended, nearly all of his time had to be spent working a conglomeration of low-paying jobs to service the astronomical expenses of living independently in Victoria. Music largely fell by the wayside. Finding a path to financial stability in Canada is now the singular goal for Alesh; he must achieve this before the government will consider allowing his family to reunite with him here.
Dave Conway, a retired elementary teacher and member of a local refugee sponsor group, was introduced to Alesh at a party two years ago, where they jammed a bit together and hit it off. Conway, who has played bass and guitar for decades, says he has been working with a pianist on a demo recording featuring Alesh, but it’s not easy to schedule, since Alesh is “very, very busy. It’s hard for him to maintain some of those musical connections. If people aren’t reaching out to him all the time and persisting, it doesn’t happen. A few weeks ago, he got home at midnight [from one job] and got up at four to work at the restaurant.”
Both Conway and Csaba would like to see Alesh using his musical training and talents to earn more of the money required to live in Victoria—teaching violin in people’s homes, playing house concerts or restaurant gigs, and introducing people to the beautiful and haunting melodies and culture of the Arabic world. Both agree community networking could make this happen, yet Alesh is too busy rushing from job to job to promote himself or contemplate possibilities. “If he had even one opportunity to play for pay in a week, that would be so much more rewarding than doing prep work in a restaurant for hours and hours,” Conway says. Csaba concurs. “When people move across cultures, very often they have to convert their strengths and weaknesses. Sari may not be a ‘star’ character; he may be an introvert, but it’s true he has knowledge [that] is not possible to pass on without playing. He needs to capitalize on his strength and his knowledge.”
Watching Alesh in a video of a concert he gave at the Duncan Showroom brings visions of a lovely gathering in someone’s Victoria home, a small group of music-lovers enjoying the diverse offerings of this young, passionate violinist. “Sari is always so humble and so grateful,” Conway says. “He thanks me for playing with him, and I say, ‘Oh no, it’s really my privilege.’ He’s such a high level musician, higher than I’ll ever play with in any other context.”
Csaba thinks Victoria has much to gain from having Sari Alesh woven into Victoria’s social fabric. “It’s a marvellous opportunity for the community to look at Sari, to look in the mirror in some ways…we all came to this country at some point. Some very early, some very late, and such a career reminds us that we all had to find our place in society in some ways, musically and socially. It teaches humbleness, and reflection, and openness.”
Mollie Kaye is a writer, musician, communication specialist and community builder. She performs with The Millies. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.