Barry McNamara  |   Published November 14, 2019

Celebrating Her American Story

Day after becoming a U.S. citizen, Mariela Shaker ’15 returns to campus to educate and inspire students.
  • Mariela Shaker ’15, left, was joined at her citizenship ceremony with Monmouth faculty member Carolyn Suda.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Mariela Shaker ’15 returned to campus Thursday to once again share her story at a convocation for first-year students in Monmouth College’s “Introduction to Liberal Arts” course.

But this time, the Syrian refugee’s story had a new twist.

While introducing her former music student at the convocation in Dahl Chapel and Auditorium, Monmouth faculty member Carolyn Suda announced that just the day before, Shaker became an American citizen.

That news was greeted by a loud round of applause from the students, as were the three music selections that Shaker, an award-winning violinist, performed during the convocation. She was accompanied by Suda’s department colleague, pianist Tim Pahel, for all three selections, and by Suda for the final number.

“It is a great pleasure and a great honor to be with you today,” said Shaker, who will soon head to London to live with her husband. “Being back on this stage gives me beautiful memories.”

A ruined city

The memories are of a different sort when Shaker recalls the horrors of her war-torn country. She lived in the capital city of Aleppo, where sometimes, she said, “your biggest hope is just to see the sun shine the next day.”

But Shaker had loftier dreams and hopes, which she credited in part to her mother, who devoted all her energy to Shaker and “encouraged her to pursue an array of opportunities.”

It was the opportunities in music that took hold for Shaker, and she recalled her mother paying one month’s salary for Shaker to travel across Syria to Damascus for a scholarship interview.

But as the Syrian war escalated, it became clear to Shaker that the opportunities she sought could only be found in another country.

“We would frequently wake up to the sound of massive explosions,” she said, recalling a blast that killed 82 people in her city. “Every day, we risked our lives by being there.”

Shaker said Aleppo was once a beautiful city, and she showed the Monmouth students a video with several before and after shots of sites throughout Aleppo. The rubble and ruin were sobering.

“I remember being there and struggling with the darkness of a ruined city,” she said. “It breaks my heart.”

Her Monmouth lifeline

But then, she said, a lifeline came – an email from former Monmouth College international admissions representative Bren Tooley.

“She asked, ‘Was I alive?’” said Shaker. “I thought, ‘Wow, someone beyond the ocean actually cares about me.’ That email was my visa to come to America.”

But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Shaker had to secure transportation out of Aleppo. She made a risky bus trip to Beirut to catch her flight from Lebanon to Florida, weathering at least 50 checkpoints along the way. Many of the personnel on duty thought the case she was traveling with held a gun, not a violin, and she repeatedly had to prove otherwise.

What should’ve been a five- or six-hour trip took 17 hours. It was only after she was safely in the United States that Shaker learned that three similar buses had been bombed and that many people had been killed, including her family’s doctor.

Shaker expressed gratitude once again for the love and support she found at Monmouth, from people such as Tooley and Carolyn and David Suda, and also from the College as a whole, which welcomed 18 Syrian refugees that year.

“We need to wake up and realize that education in the key,” she said. “It was (Holocaust victim) Anne Frank who said that education is the best weapon we have to defeat extremism and ignorance.”

Advice for students

Shaker offered several pieces of advice to the ILA students, along with bits of wisdom she has gained on her journey.

“If you have your will, nothing can be impossible,” she said. “Resolve to stand up again and again and never give up. It is never OK to shut down and welcome despair.”

She also advised the students to never stop working toward their goals and to break up their pursuit of those goals into smaller pieces.

“Think about your next move, rather than the entirety of what you have ahead of you,” she said.

For the past several months, Shaker has traveled far and wide to share her music and personal story, building bridges and raising awareness of the plight of the Syrian people and youth. Along the way, she has shared the stage with such celebrities as Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Ben Stiller and Meryl Streep.

“I believe in the power of music to bring people together and share our differences,” she said. “I hope the sound of music will one day be much louder than the sound of any weapon.”

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