Immigrant song: Refugee Orchestra plays classical tunes

Traveling band: The Refugee Orchestra is made up of a mostly refugee and immigrant musicians, and will perform songs by composers who were also refugees.
Brooklyn Paper
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They’ve come a long way to play.

A group of classical musicians, most of whom came to this country as refugees, will play a concert celebrating immigrant composers on March 4, as part of the Spring Revolution Festival at National Sawdust in Williamsburg. The Refugee Orchestra Project aims to challenge stereotypes about who comes to the United States, said the group’s founder and conductor.

“The most common stereotypes is this assumption that refugees are from war-torn places that only happen to poor people or brown people, and which can never happen here,” said Lidiya Yankovskaya, who moved from Russian when she was a child. “When in reality most of these people who come here are educated and worked different kinds of jobs.”

The “look” of refugees shifts and changes over time, said Yankovskaya, and people should remain open-minded about what is going on in the world.

“Refugees come from all backgrounds,” she said. “Before it was Jews, Africans, then Eastern Europeans. There are people of all colors coming to this country who are extremely successful, and people should avoid making stereotypes of what a refugee looks like.”

The 12-member orchestra includes immigrants from Palestine, Ukraine, and Portugal, along with a few musicians who were born in the United States. Bringing native and immigrant musicians together is part of the group’s goals, said Yankovskaya.

“A number of us performing are immigrants but not all of us,” she said. “I feel that being exclusive defeats the purpose of our mission, and when we decided to move with this, we found that we are much stronger as performers if we had a mixture, and in many ways that makes our music stronger.”

The group will play 10 pieces, each written by someone who was a refugee at some point in their life, with composers hailing from Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, Russia, Syria, and Korea, said Yankovskaya. Each of them created different styles of music, which also works to point out the variety of refugees that come to the United States, she said.

“All of them are very different,” she said. “A couple of pieces in the program has to do with the some of their refugee experiences, and some do not.”

“Refugees are Us” at National Sawdust [80 N. Sixth St. at Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, (646) 779–8455,]. March 4 at 4 pm.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at
Updated 9:05 am, February 28, 2018
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