BOISE, Idaho — When she speaks about the terrors of war, Mariela Shaker plays hauntingly beautiful music on her violin in between her description of why people leave their homeland.
Shaker, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, spoke at the Idaho Conference on Refugees Tuesday, sharing her life story with over 250 people gathered in the Boise State University Student Union, reports the Idaho Press.
“I love Syria with all my heart and soul,” Shaker said. After the years of violence and her family’s relocation, Syria no longer feels like home, she continued.
The Syrian Civil War began in Damascus, as part of the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Aleppo became a center of violence shortly after, in early 2012. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Syrian Civil War has been the second-deadliest of the 21st century, with at least 470,000 deaths caused directly or indirectly by the conflict.
Shaker was working on a business administration degree at the University of Aleppo and teaching violin when the war approached Aleppo. Finding a way out became paramount.
“We woke up to massive sounds of explosions, and I was forced to hide in internet cafes to send applications to schools in Europe and the U.S.,” Shaker said.
After sending some 50 applications, and seeing the horrors of war, she received a “miraculous email” from a university that asked, “Was I alive after they bombed my university?”
On Jan. 15, 2013, the University of Aleppo was struck by an attack, an explosion that killed 82 people, some of whom were Shaker’s friends.
“I remember hearing ambulance sirens and walking to the music school to teach, not knowing if I would make it back home in the evening, and my students and I would hide under the table when we heard the air siren and missiles close by hitting,” she said.
Shaker was accepted at Monmouth University in New Jersey with a full-tuition scholarship and arrived in the United States in 2013 to complete her bachelor’s degree. She later graduated from DePaul University in Chicago with a master’s in music performance. The civil war’s closeness never really went away.
In November 2016, her mother narrowly escaped a rocket attack that killed a neighbor across the street, and as time went on, Shaker learned about friends who died, and saw her people risk their lives to flee their homes.
“I always wondered if I would be alive tomorrow, and if I would be united with them one day,” Shaker told the conference. Her parents received humanitarian visas to live in Belgium last year.
Shaker lives in London with her husband, and has traveled the world, telling her story of survival and advocating for the 70 million displaced people all over the world.
Former President Barack Obama named Shaker a “Champion of Change for World Refugees” in 2015, an award given by the United States to people who have made a positive impact in the name of refugees.
“People ask me, ‘Why are you so optimistic?’ I chose to live, not to die. Hope is the only thing that motivates us for the bad luck we have, and our great efforts might not pay off this month, or the following month, but it cannot carry on forever,” Shaker told the crowd. “One day, I hope the sound of music will be louder than any weapon.”
CONFERENCE ON REFUGEES
Idaho’s Annual Conference on Refugees ran Monday and Tuesday at Boise State University.
The conference "serves many purposes: that of rejuvenation, learning, sharing and connecting," according to the Idaho Office for Refugees' website. "It has continued to grow, reaching new stakeholders in the community and providing additional opportunities for improved refugee resettlement."
The two-day conference includes workshops, speakers and panelists, with a focus on learning best practices, networking with others working or volunteering in resettlement, and getting updates on resettlement in the U.S. and abroad.