In New York, Musicians Gather for World Refugee Day Tribute

By Rachel Nusbaum,

“Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” said Lidiya Yankovskaya.

An accomplished conductor of both symphony and opera, Yankovskaya would seem to have a pretty full plate. She currently serves as artistic director for a Boston-based instrumental ensemble, music director for the Commonwealth Lyric Theater, and as a conductor with the Boston Youth Symphony.

Travelling in Europe last summer, however, Yankovskaya saw the full scope of reactions to the unfolding humanitarian crisis as large numbers of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers began arriving on Europe’s doorstep, seeking safety and a chance to start fresh.

“On the one hand, it was very difficult to see the thousands of people struggling to get across the border each day and the backlash in some of the countries into which they were fleeing. But it was also very inspiring to see the vast amount of support offered to refugees in much of Europe,” Yankovskaya said.

“I was very impressed by that. And when I came back to the United States, I was shocked at the difference in some people’s reactions, especially considering that we are separated by an ocean,” said Yankovskaya. “The amount of backlash to refugees, or even the idea of accepting refugees here, was enormous.”

This hit home for Yankovskaya, who was once a refugee herself. Her family fled Russia when she was 9 years old. “Many people in my own life didn’t realize that I myself came here as a refugee. It’s just not something that comes up in general conversation,” Yankovskaya said.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of courage to leave your homeland and to go somewhere completely new,” said Yankovskaya. “People don’t do it just because. If they’re forced to leave, it’s because things are really, really tough where they are. It takes a very special person to make that leap, and then to push themselves to succeed in that totally new environment.”

Yankovskaya wanted to do something to highlight the positive contributions of refugees, so she started with something she knew and loved: music. She started the Refugee Orchestra Project to showcase “the impact and the contribution that those who have come to this country seeking a better life have made on our culture and society.”

The Refugee Orchestra Project will be celebrating world refugee day with a concert in New York City on Monday, June 20 at 8pm. The performance will take place at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn. Admission is free, and all donations will go to three organizations doing refugee protection work: HIAS, IRC and Episcopal Migration Ministries.

Many of the musicians and singers are also refugees themselves, like acclaimed soprano Lubana Al Quntar who hails from Syria and was assisted by HIAS Pennsylvania after being granted asylum in the United States. Others have friends or parents who came to the U.S. fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. 

The program includes works by Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud and Irving Berlin—all refugees too. Berlin famously wrote God Bless America, but the fact that his family fled Russia when Berlin was small is less well known.

“My family came here in the 90’s, with help from HIAS,” Yankovskaya recalled. A HIAS scholarship covered the cost of her music lessons. “Without that, my family could never have afforded it,” she said.

“I do what I do today because of the aid that was offered and because people took me in.”

“For me it’s so important that we celebrate the contribution of these individuals to our culture, and to our cultural landscape. It’s a chance to celebrate all of these performers and what they have given to our country.”

“I hope this event helps people realize what an enormous contribution refugees make to our world and to our nation.”


Want to see Lidiya Yankovskaya and the Refugee Orchestra Project in action? Click here for more information about the concert on June 20 in New York City.


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