Singing for Syria
Fairfield Native Brings Music to Refugees
›› This June, Fairfield-native and Fairfield High School graduate Dylan Connor found himself at the home of a family of Syrian refugees in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. He and some 30 other volunteers working with children displaced by the Syrian Civil War at the nearby Al Salam School crammed into the family’s small apartment where dozens of large platters of spiced meat, rice, stuffed squash, eggplant, hummus and other Syrian dishes covered nearly every inch of the floor, a symbol of gratitude from the mother of one of their students.
It was a quiet, breezy night in Reyhanli, and after the meal the group stepped out onto the porch as the woman read from a book of poetry, words inspired by the bloody revolution that has ravaged Syria for over three years, claiming some 200,000 lives and forcing millions to flee from their homeland. The woman’s son, missing a leg from an explosion set off during the fighting, began to sing along.
“He had this voice full of pain,” recalls the 39-year-old Connor, who traveled to Turkey with the charity foundation Karam (“generosity”
in Arabic) in order to give music lessons to the children at Al Salam. “People who are trying to make it in music, they try to instill their voice with that kind of emotion, but his voice was just so pure. I really felt like at that moment I was in the land of the revolution.”
In recent years, Connor’s voice has emerged as one of the clearest reminders of the pain that grips Syria under the control of President Bashar al-Assad. A high school Latin teacher and a singer/songwriter popular around the Fairfield county club and coffee shop scene, he started writing topical songs in support of the revolution after his Syrian wife’s parents fled their home in Damascus and began living with him in Stratford. His album, Blood Like Fire (Songs for Syria), has turned Connor into something of a celebrity in the war-torn country. Local television stations broadcast his music videos and his face has even appeared on stamps for the revolution. The expedition this summer with Karam marked his first trip back to the region since the fighting broke out.
“One of the things I was really struck by was that here I was in Turkey, but I felt like I was in Syria,” says Connor. “The feeling of the air, the feeling of the climate, the food was being cooked by Syrian vendors….It was like I was back in touch with this place I had been writing about for the last few years.”
Connor’s dinner hosts in Reyhanli were one of the more fortunate Syrian families he met during his week-long stay on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, however. The father is a soldier with the Free Syrian Army and is able to send enough money across the border each month for his wife and children to rent their small flat. But those who are lucky enough to make it out of the squalid refugee camps and over the Syrian-Turkish border are often forced to live in makeshift tents or under the shield of blasted rubble, wherever crevices of space still exist.
“Some of the kids, most of them, have lost one or both parents,” says Connor. “They’re living in terrible, terrible conditions.”
So Connor, along with a diverse group of photographers, basketball coaches, boxing instructors, architects and authors hailing from countries across the globe, set out to give the boys and girls of Al Salam School a semblance of a normal life despite the surrounding destruction.
“Music wasn’t the point,” he explains. “The point was that all of us came from different parts of the world because we care about them. And that’s powerful. It made them feel loved and gave them a smile. It gave them hope that they’re not forgotten.”
On the first day at Al Salam it became apparent that the classrooms were too cramped to fit Connor, his guitar, and 20-30 eager children, so the group made their way to the school’s roof. Connor taught the basics of music, encouraging them to sing along with him and keep the beat using egg shakers and rhythm sticks. The experience was equally transformative for Connor, who plans to tour U.S. colleges this fall raising awareness for Syria through the narrative of his own personal journey. “Working with these kids, seeing their smiles, engaging, being in this other part of the world. It was something I can’t even explain.”