Syrian Refugee, Piano Prodigy

A teenage refugee discovered his own prodigious talent, and reversed his family's fortunes

2014 was an awful year for Syria. Since 2011, a civil war has raged between authoritarian President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and an ever-growing array of anti-government rebels, both moderate and viciously extreme, like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda’s Al Nusra front. There is no sugar-coating the numbers—over 200,000 people have been killed, according to estimates, and nearly ten million displaced, forced to live in abject refugee camps or constantly on the run. Over three million Syrians have made it to Turkey or other countries to gain asylum as refugees—and they are the lucky ones.

Refugees live incredibly hard lives, even in relatively stable neighboring countries like Lebanon. They are discriminated against, have difficulty finding work and schooling, and are often subject to community-imposed curfews and other arbitrary rules, just because of their nationality. For so many families, it feels impossible to live a normal life or rise above the destitution and struggle that pervades their daily existence

But for 16-year-old Syrian refugee Tambi Asaad Cimuk, things took a different turn. Tambi, raised in the Syrian capital Damascus, fled to Turkey with his family two years ago. And as he discovered, walking into a music shop in Turkey’s northwestern city of Bursa, he has a rare gift. Despite having never played before in his life, Tambi can play the piano at the level of a highly trained concert professional. The young Syrian refugee is a prodigy.



“I’m expecting a Rachmaninoff out of him,” one of Tambi’s music teachers in Turkey told Al Jazeera. As of now, Tambi has only been playing the piano for 18 months. In such a short time, “to come to this level—it’s absolutely unbelievable,” said Tamara Poddubnaya, a pianist and piano teacher at the Long Island Conservatory of Music.

When news of Tambi’s talent got out, thanks to a media campaign led by his music teachers, Turkey’s President Erdogan actually called Tambi personally. The president offered his family Turkish citizenship, which then enabled him to travel to Russia for an international piano competition attended by professionals with decades of experience. Tambi’s family had applied for Turkish citizenship months before, but as is the case for most Syrian refugees, the process is long and often futile. Most of the refugees in Turkey can’t even get work permits, and many are forced to sleep on the street.

Now, Tambi’s parents beam with pride as they talk about his upcoming trip to America to perform at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall for a youth music competition. His Facebook inbox is constantly receiving congratulatory messages of support from Syrians and Turks he has never met. He is very aware of his extraordinary position and very grateful for it—“I must practice and practice,” he told the Huffington Post. “I’m a very lucky boy. There are so many people who want to be in my place right now.”

Tambi’s parents cannot afford to pay for expensive music lessons or plane tickets, so his teachers managed to secure a scholarship for him at a private high school in Turkey and ensure his continued training. And this summer, he will go to Maine to train at an intensive music festival called Music Without Borders.

The 16-year-old plays pieces by Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Mozart, among others—some of the greatest pianists the world has ever known. And he learned it all in just a year and a half. Now, Tambi hopes that his music will bring a message of peace. Despite the war raging in the only place he ever called home, Tambi does not want to get into politics. “Art shouldn’t have teams,” he said. “It’s a simple message from the piano.”


Photo Credit: Damascus-born Syrian, 16-year old Tambi Asaad Cimuk. Photo: The Huffington Post

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