Pasadena UN Association chapter uses music to help children in some of the world’s poorest refugee camps

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 6/21/2018

With no end in sight to the unprecedented global refugee crisis, the Pasadena chapter of the United Nations Association (UNA) is hosting a concert Friday, June 22, to benefit two of the largest, most crowded and poorest refugee camps in the world.

The second annual concert will raise money for the Adopt-A-Future campaign, run by UNA-USA and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Launched in 2016, Adopt-A-Future raises money to benefit two UN refugee camps in Kenya: the Dadaab Refugee Complex and the Kakuma Refugee Camp, temporary home to more than 400,000 people. Those funds will be matched by the UN Foundation and the queen of Qatar, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser.

About 18 million of the more than 65 million people who have been forced to flee their homes and their countries due to conflict and persecution are under the direct care of the UN. More than half of them are children, many of whom have limited if any access to an education. One of the UN’s global goals, known as the Sustainable Development Goals, is dedicated to “providing inclusive, quality education to all and promoting lifelong learning as a basic human right.”

Student musicians from the Colburn School in Los Angeles will perform at the benefit concert, which will be held from 7 to 9:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center at Westridge School for Girls, 324 Madeline Drive Tickets are $25 for adults, $15 for seniors and $10 for students.

Friends in Aleppo

One of those student musicians is herself a refugee from Syria. When Nanor Seraydarian was 11 years old, she and her parents and siblings were visiting her aunt in the United States in June 2012 when all hell broke loose in Aleppo, her home town. They haven’t been back to Syria since, and now live in Reseda, which she said has been difficult. She is entering 11th grade in the fall.

“We didn’t know English back then [in 2012], so I had to learn a new language,” she said. “It was hard making friends at school, especially in the beginning, because everybody would speak English and I wouldn’t know what they were saying. I think music helped me get through that because when I play music I forget about all my worries and about all my pains, and I think through music is how we’re going to get to tell people to help these refugees gain an education.”

Seraydarian is a violinist who performed in last year’s Adopt-A-Future benefit concert and is looking forward to performing again this year.

“I really liked the concert last year,” she said. “It was a great idea to tell people about the refugee camps and the kids who are having difficulties in getting access to education. It was my honor and pleasure to play in the concert. I’m definitely excited to play again this year.”

The destruction of Aleppo was a humanitarian crisis from 2012 to 2016 and became the symbol of a disastrous war that the international community failed to stop. Seraydarian still has family members in Syria who she talks to every week.

“They’re in a safe area, but most areas are still not safe to go,” she said. “They’re mostly at home and at school. I still have some friends there, but I have no contact with them. Some of them I know are in Armenia now, some of them I know are in Canada. I still don’t know what happened to most of my friends who stayed in Aleppo.”

Seraydarian said she misses Syria and wants to go back “when the conditions permit, of course, when it’s safe to go back.”

Special Care Needed

The benefit concert is the brainchild of Marta Sterns, who serves on the board of UNA-Pasadena.

“To me, the fact that those kids are trapped in refugee camps for an average of 17 years is really scary,” she said. “I point out to my progressive friends the fact that it’s a humanitarian crisis when you think of losing that much talent and mental capacity over the next couple of generations. I point out to my conservative friends that there will be 65 million illiterate people emerging from those camps with no home, no country and no place to go. That’s scarier than anything we’re looking at right now, in terms of the potential for radicalization.”

At Kakuma and the nearby Kalobeyei Settlement, which were established in 2015, an influx of refugees from South Sudan has stretched thin the available resources, including education. At Dadaab, 95 percent of the population is from Somalia. According to a UN report, “of 48,737 students enrolled in Dadaab schools in December 2017, there were 943 ‘special needs’ students.” Sterns pointed out that many refugee children need special care because they have experienced extremely traumatic situations, such as the killing of their parents.

Girls are also particularly vulnerable. They constitute nearly 70 percent of out-of-school children in the camps, according to the UN report.

“Girls face negative cultural practices such as early marriage, female genital mutilation, difficulties balancing school work and domestic responsibilities, overcrowding which tends to push girls out and family preferences to educate boys,” reads the report.

So far, the Adopt-A-Future campaign has helped to “expand school infrastructure (seven classrooms and 16 latrines), improve teacher salaries and training and provide desks and more than 9,000 textbooks. Primary education access improved 15.1 percent from 2016 through 2017, and refugee children who sat for the national primary exam achieved an 87.8 percent pass rate (the national average was 76 percent).”

However, these improvements have “not kept pace with the significant growth in school enrollment. Overcrowding threatens the quality of education as 160 children share a classroom meant for 40 pupils. There is one teacher for every 103 pupils, one book for every seven students and one desk for every seven students.”

A Human Right

At the benefit concert, Sterns is aiming to raise $30,000 to build a classroom in one of the refugee camps.

“Last year, we got about 200 people and raised about $8,000, but the auditorium at Westridge will hold 450. We want to fill the room this year,” she said.

Sterns will also be hosting a fundraising soiree at her house in Pasadena where a pianist and an opera singer will perform. She and other members of UNA-Pasadena plan to reach out to local progressive groups to raise funds as well.

“Last year, we had problems giving tickets to the benefit concert away because people thought it was a little kids’ recital, but when they showed up it was a jaw dropping experience,” she said. “These kids are really outstanding performers. They’re in the protégé category. They fill the room with music, and it is just so beautiful.”

Sterns said events like these are becoming increasingly necessary since the Trump administration is cutting US foreign aid, including the United States’ traditional contribution to organizations like the UN. In December, the administration announced $285 million in cuts to the UN’s budget.

“U.S. support around the world is disappearing,” Sterns said. “The remaining opportunities to make a difference in a very complex, violent world are that much more critical. It’s the kids that get me. To me, education is a human right. Besides providing some kind of a life, it’s survival for these populations. They’re not going to make it without an education. They can be trapped in a camp for 17 years, but we can free their minds. We can still give them a chance.”

UNA-Pasadena will also present the second annual Jon Charles Distinguished Service Award to Methodist minister, author, occasional Pasadena Weekly contributing columnist and social activist Inman Moore, in appreciation of his lifelong commitment for social justice, equality and human rights. The award is named after past UNA-Pasadena President Jon Charles, for “his selfless service and dedication to a world that works for everyone.” 

Tickets for tomorrow’s Adopt-A-Future benefit concert can be purchased at the door or online at: