Something decidedly unquiet was transpiring in the Fair Haven branch library community room. Chins pressed themselves to chinrests. Tiny hands gingerly gripped equally tiny bows. A few feet spread out on the sun-bathed carpet, getting in position.
The room exploded in Pachelbel’s Canon. A handful of parents glued their eyes to the gaggle of youngsters before them.
The group wasn’t just playing together for the first time. Several of them were playing publicly for the first time in the United States.
That was the idea behind the local not-for-profit group Music Haven‘s newest program, a collaboration with Integrated Immigrant and Refugee Services (IRIS) that teaches refugee kids to play violin as part of their welcome to the United States, and to New Haven. The program is currently made possible by a $20,000 Arts & Community Impact grant from the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development.
The idea was born in 2015, as Music Haven Executive Director Mandi Jackson and Senior Resident Musician Yaira Matyakubova found themselves talking to students about the Syrian refugee crisis, and the kids — kids just like them, the kids said — who were affected by it every day. Matyakubova’s violin students wanted to know if they could help by putting on a small concert, or meeting some of the kids who had just arrived in New Haven.
Working with IRIS, Music Haven arranged a workshop and “instrument petting zoo” at Fair Haven School, where refugees from kindergarten to eighth grade start school, and do an after-school ‘newcomers’ program. It introduced more global music and concerts at the school to its annual calendar. Then in September of last year, Matyakubova started offering tuition-free lessons to a small, tight-knit group.
There was an initial wave of excitement. Then some students dropped out. Then there was another wave, bringing the number to 14. Currently, her students come from Afghanistan, Congo, Liberia, Iraq, and Syria.
“We were already eager to collaborate, then Yaira struck up a great relationship with the kids,” said Will Kneerim, director of education and employment at IRIS. “Starting from the very beginning, it wasn’t only about the material and the music but the kids themselves.” He added that IRIS is “excited to continue with Music Haven” when classes resume this fall.
For Matyakubova, the program is exciting for another reason. She came to the United States as an immigrant at 16, leaving the former Soviet Union “as it was falling apart” for a spot at the Interlochen Arts Academy just outside of Traverse City, Michigan. With “no language, and no money,” she relied on her classmates and friends for help. They didn’t let her down.
“People were incredibly kind,” she recalled at the library, sitting in a pint-sized chair after the performance. “I had the best friends — in Michigan, then in Houston, in Florida. All over, people were willing to help an immigrant kid. I feel obliged to do the same. This is the best part of America — it’s really welcoming.”
“Now too,” she said when asked if that sentiment stopped with President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and refugee rhetoric. “There’s an even greater need to embrace the American spirit in this case. The government doesn’t define the people.”
With its budget hurdles, the state isn’t renewing the Arts & Community Impact grant for the next fiscal year. But Matyakubova “will teach for free if I have to,” and is planning on both keeping the group going, and expanding to private lessons.
She’ll do it, she said, for students like Noorhan and Rawan (pictured at top; IRIS asked that last names be withheld), sisters who arrived from Iraq last year. As the two sat with classmates Austina and Claudine, Rawan packed up her violin, and reflected on the concert. None of them had played before the class began in September 2016.
“It’s fun to share new things that you know about music,” she said.
“You feel music, and you feel good,” said Austina, who is from Liberia. “It makes you happy. You learn, and you are happy, happy, happy.”
Music Haven’s spring performance party is tonight, Friday, June 2, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Fair Haven School. To find out more, visit the organization’s website.