Inside the Middle East

Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra unites musicians who fled war to Europe

Syrian orchestra brings refugees together
02:41 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra has brought together about 70 Syrian musicians living in Europe

The group incorporates traditional Syrian instruments, and promotes composers from their homeland

Founder Raed Jazbeh calls it a "cultural ministry" for Syrians in Europe

CNN  — 

“Today it’s raining, last week we had summer, and this week we have winter. So in two weeks we’ve had two different seasons.”

For most people in Europe the weather is simply small talk. For Raed Jazbeh the seasons are a cause of genuine bemusement. The weather in Germany, after all, is a far cry from the distinct seasons in his native Syria.

Jazbeh is the founder of the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra – a musical ensemble composed entirely of Syrians, many of whom are refugees who have fled the country’s bloody war.

With a 170-year-old double bass that’s been loaned to him by his side, Jazbeh is on his way to a final rehearsal for a concert taking place later that night when CNN meets him.

The performance in Berlin will be by the Damascus String Quintet, a breakaway group that represents the orchestra on occasion.

Coming to Berlin

Raed came to Germany in 2013 on an orchestral tour from Damascus; he claimed asylum in the European country and hasn’t been back to Syria since.

“My friends told me, ‘You have to start a new life here. You cannot do anything in the war’.”

He is one of the 366,000 Syrians who had made Germany their home by 2015, according to that country’s Central Register of Foreigners.

But while Damascus is where he came to Germany from, Jazbeh’s hometown is Aleppo: a city currently under siege as Syria’s 5-year civil war rages on.

Raed, who has played with the Symphony Orchestra of the Damascus Higher Institute of Music and the Arab Philharmonic Orchestra, was born there to a creative family – his father, brother, and sister are all musicians.

Indeed, Aleppo, he says, is known as “the music capital of the Middle East”, and was the birthplace of muwashshah, a classical genre with 800 years of history.

“I was quite lucky to be born in Aleppo. It’s a very musical city. Everybody has at least one musician in the family – whether it’s an oud player or a singer.”

Getting set-up

Once in Germany, getting the orchestra off the ground wasn’t easy.

“I started to contact my friends in Europe. It took me nine months to find them,” Jazbeh tells CNN.

“Some people said it was a very big dream and impossible, that I couldn’t do it. But I was patient and I had hope that I could do it.”

After fundraising, the group performed their first concert in 2015, with 30 Syrian musicians and 20 from Germany. This year, the orchestra has 65 Syrian musicians from all over Europe, although the group is based in Bremen where Jazbeh lives.

“I love it there,” Raed says. “Everybody’s been very welcoming, there’s no Pegida there either,” he adds, referencing the far right, anti-Islamist group that has seen some popularity in other parts of the country.

A cultural ministry

For Raed, the orchestra isn’t a pet project – he has grand ambitions for the group.

“We aren’t here to play a game. We are here to play serious music,” he says. “We hope to continue and be an official orchestra in Europe.”

Among other things, the group performs works by Syrian composers, and features some traditional Syrian instruments.

The orchestra also serves, in his eyes, as a cultural ministry. “Most of the media every day have the news about the war and fighting in Syria. We need to do something different …[to put forward] the beautiful face of Syria.”

It seems that audiences are rooting for the group.

“After every performance we have Syrians and Europeans come up to us. They tell us to continue … we feel we have to continue. We have to do something.

“We cannot stop this war, so by our music we can do something. Maybe it’s very small, but it’s very important.”