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Bombings and violence forced them to flee their homeland, then the Trump administration’s travel ban complicated their plans to find refuge. Now, a fellowship program has brought four musicians together again at the University of Victoria

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The Orontes Guitar Quartet performs at the University of Victoria in late November. They are the first group to be brought together in a safe country by the Artist Protection Fund, a New York-based program that supports threatened artists around the world.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

He felt the bomb before he heard it. Nazir Salameh’s right arm, the one he played guitar with, had been hit. Salameh ran to the nearest car, which happened to be a taxi. “To the hospital, to the hospital! Hurry up!” he told the driver, who set off through the streets of Damascus toward help. The pain was excruciating; Salameh had to hold his right arm up with his left hand. When the shelling began, he had been waiting for two of his bandmates on their way to a rehearsal for their quartet; he had to leave his guitar behind.

Salameh says he had one thought on his way to the hospital: “If I will not play [guitar] again, I prefer to die.”

Telling the story three years later during an interview from the safety of the University of Victoria, the 26-year-old Syrian rolls up his shirt sleeve. “There was a mortar shell that entered from here,” he points to the scar on the top of his arm near his bicep, “and outside from here,” he says, lifting his arm to show another scar on its underside.

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Nazir Salameh still carries a scar on his right arm from a bombing in Syria.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Despite the severity of his injury, Salameh was able to play guitar again. This skill eventually brought him here, to the School of Music building on UVic’s forested campus, along with the three other members of the Orontes Guitar Quartet. Gaby Al-Botros, Mohammed Mir Mahmoud, Orwa Al-Shara’a – all 25 – and Salameh, 26, arrived two weeks earlier.

The men are spending the year in the B.C. capital on fellowships organized by the Artist Protection Fund (APF). Based in New York and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the APF supports threatened artists around the world by providing fellowship grants and designing residency programs at academic or cultural institutions in safe countries, following a rigorous application process.

The APF, in its three years of operation, has placed more than 30 fellows at host institutions around the world, including Harvard, Brown, NYU and the London College of Communication. UVic’s participation marks the first time the APF has placed fellows in Canada – an unexpected consequence, in part, of the political climate in the United States. It’s also the first time the APF has placed a group together, which was an enormous endeavour.

“You can imagine how hard it is to bring one artist to a host institution; this was times four. So we were really down to the wire. And it was deeply gratifying when they were all allowed visas,” APF executive director Alison Russo explains.

“Finally, and after everything we’ve been through, the dream has come true!” Orontes posted on their Facebook page from Victoria on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day. “Many thanks to APF … for doing the impossible.”

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The quartet, from left: Orwa Al-Shara’a, Nazir Salameh, Mohammed Mir Mahmoud and Gaby Al-Botros.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Al-Botros, Al-Shara’a, Mir Mahmoud and Salameh met while studying at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus back in 2012 and 2013. Their peaceful middle-class Syrian lives had been disrupted by the civil war, which broke out in 2011. Violence and terror became commonplace; Al-Botros mentions 15 car explosions in his neighbourhood alone.

In 2015, three of the men were studying in Beirut when they met world-renowned U.S. classical guitarist and composer Susan McDonald, who teaches in conflict zones. At her suggestion, they selected a fourth member back in Damascus and formed a quartet. Their first public performance was held on Syrian Mother’s Day in March, 2016, at a little church in Damascus. The conductor of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra was in the audience. Impressed, Missak Baghboudarian invited Orontes to play with the orchestra. The men were ecstatic.

A few months later, with a few more performances under their belt, the members of Orontes were backstage at the Damascus Opera House, waiting to make their debut with the symphony.

Then a bomb exploded outside.

“When I heard the sound, I [ran] like crazy,” says Salameh, who wanted to ensure anyone he knew outside was okay.

They were, but many others were wounded. Salameh – who had already survived the previous attack that had injured his arm – and the three others were shaken and confused. Do they cancel or continue? Amazingly, some audience members remained in the concert hall; they wanted to hear some music. Baghboudarian decided the show would go on.

“[When] we started to play, we forgot everything because we just focused on what we are doing,” Mir Mahmoud says.

“Actually, also that wasn’t the first time we [witnessed] a mortar shell and something like this,” Al-Botros adds. “I’m sorry to say, but we got used to that.”

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Mohammed Mir Mahmoud and Gaby Al-Botros.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

It became too dangerous to stay in Syria. Eventually they all made it to Lebanon, where they worked as teaching assistants for McDonald, and also taught Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Wanting to help them to safety, McDonald sought scholarships that could help them escape.

“Chances were great in Syria that they would get killed. Maybe there would be an ISIS checkpoint, and that would be it, because ISIS kills musicians; they target them,” says McDonald, who runs a small foundation called Remember the River, which supports artists in dangerous regions.

She eventually stumbled upon the APF, and contacted Russo.

After a meticulous application process, the musicians were approved by the APF. But just as it seemed they were on their way to finding refuge, U.S. President Donald Trump introduced a controversial travel ban affecting several countries, most of them with a Muslim majority, including Syria. This made it impossible for them to get visas to the United States.

“It has completely shifted the dynamic, the minute the ban was put into place,” Russo says.

The APF now had to find an institution outside the United States that would accept the quartet. McDonald contacted an old colleague, Alexander Dunn, an acclaimed classical guitarist who teaches at the University of Victoria.

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Dr. Alexander Dunn, middle, visits with the quartet.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Dunn felt UVic was a perfect host institution – a mid-size university that could offer a lot of personal attention and has a strong guitar culture. And he recognized what the presence of the quartet could accomplish.

“I think these guys represent a narrative and it’s a story about music existing under stress and art surviving in situations of war and duress,” says Dunn, who championed their cause. It would turn out to be an 18-month process.

The university’s immigration co-ordinator, Lori Shaw, worked on arranging visas, which took much longer than anticipated. After initial denials on the Canadian side, the applications were resubmitted; all were approved after more than a year of waiting.

In November, the four guitarists left Beirut and eventually landed in Vancouver, where they were greeted by Dunn, Shaw – and McDonald, who flew in from Texas for the occasion. “I sometimes think of myself as their musical mother,” she says.

“We were all waiting nervously at the airport, as there was no way of knowing if a border services officer would reject their paperwork,” Dunn explains. “Thankfully, they all came through immigration with smiles and expressions of relief.”

They took the ferry to Vancouver Island and finally arrived at the campus. “My first impression was wow,” says Al-Shara’a, who says the fresh air and quiet in Victoria are much more conducive to practicing guitar than the sirens and bomb blasts back in Syria.

“It felt like I’m travelling not from a country to a country; I felt like I was travelling from a planet to another planet.”

Watch: Orwa Al-Shara’a reflects on his first impressions of Victoria and how hard it was to be a musician back home in Syria.

They are here for about a year, mentored by Dunn. They hope to make another recording and are also planning a Canadian tour, likely in the spring. They can’t, of course, play in the United States.

“Our hope is that it’s not only life-changing for the [quartet] going forward, but also the number of people that they touch across Canada and across the world,” Russo says.

McDonald says in her fantasy, they have brilliant concert careers, inspire people, do charity work and perhaps even effect policy changes. “They have the real potential to put a new face on the Syrian crisis,” McDonald says, from her home in Austin. “In my country, what we see on the news is throngs of desperate refugees trying to climb over fences and multitudes of people. And that’s certainly part of the story. But I think what people don’t see is the exquisite art and humanity that’s still going on in Syria.”

Al-Botros says seeing four Syrian guitarists play, Canadian audiences are bound to think of their stories, the lives of the men beyond their music.

“Sometimes people have a typical image for people from somewhere,” Mir Mahmoud says. “When they see them as a musician or artist, they will start to think more about them.”

Listen: The quartet unplugged

The Orontes Guitar Quartet performs "Fandango" by Luigi Boccherini.

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