December 3, 2014

A Syrian Teen With Dreams of Carnegie Hall

Tambi Asaad fled Syria's civil war and became a budding star in Turkey. But will the government let this piano prodigy take his show on the road?

Author: Elcin Poyrazlar

Over the past three years, more than 1.5 million refugees have flocked to Turkey, hoping to escape Syria’s deadly civil war. Along the way, they’ve encountered rising resentment from locals.

But one Syrian transplant has captured the hearts, minds and ears of his new neighbors. His name is Tambi Asaad, and he’s a shy 16-year-old with a penchant for rap music and Rachmaninov. Some say he’s one of the most talented pianists in Turkey.

Yet because he has a Syrian passport, it’s difficult for him to leave the country to perform, let alone get the training he needs. As word of Asaad’s talents spreads on YouTube and TV, the prodigy now hopes to convince the Turkish state to let him travel the world.

“It is incredibly difficult to travel with a Syrian passport,” says Rustem Avci, the owner of Academix, a private music school Tambi attends. “It would be a great shame if his talent was wasted just by bureaucratic obstacles.”

Those obstacles pale in comparison with the ones Asaad has already overcome. Though he was born in Damascus, his family is Circassian. More than a century ago, his ancestors fled the Ottoman Empire after Russia conquered their town in the Caucasus.

Two years ago, his family fled Syria to escape the war with the help of their Circassian relatives in Turkey. Asaad says they took a few suitcases and left everything else behind.

“I hope to go back one day to see my friends again,” he says.

Asaad and his family wound up in Bursa, a city in northwestern Turkey, where he began playing the accordion to make extra money for his family. He had such a knack for the instrument that he decided to try another.

“I have always been curious about the piano,” Asaad says. “One day I wanted to try it.”

He began playing in August of last year, and almost immediately, his teacher, Elena Yudina Cekic, was stunned by his progress. She took him under her wing.

Within three months, he was ready to perform on stage.

“I am scared to use the word ‘genius’ too much,” Cekic says. “He did not know how to read music or the music theory at first. After the first classes, he started to play. He was incredibly fast.”

With Cekic as his teacher, Asaad earned a scholarship at both the music academy and a private high school in Bursa.

“After a year, he is now at the level of kids who have been playing piano for the last 10 years,” Cekic says.

Now the Turkish media has taken a special interest in Asaad’s talents. Over the past few months, he’s appeared on television and given concerts in Istanbul and elsewhere in the country.

His newest goal: to perform internationally. In October, the Syrian teenage prodigy sent a video of a recent performance to the Planeta Talantov music competition in Moscow, where he swept to the Grand Prix, besting 150 other contestants. For that contest, he didn’t have to travel. But for other international competitions, he must find a way to leave the country.

That’s a problem because most Syrians in Turkey are refugees and don’t have residence or work permits, let alone valid IDs. Asaad has to go through a long visa application process for each country he wants to visit, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll receive approval.

It would make his life much easier and his future far more secure, he says, if the Turkish government would grant him citizenship.

In the meantime, Asaad is optimistic. His dream is to move to New York and study music at Long Island University. Music is not just a career choice for this young man from Damascus; it’s his passion. “When I am angry, I play,” he says. “When I am happy, I play. I feel very emotionally powerful when I play.”

For all his power and proficiency behind the piano, he doesn’t want to be considered a genius. “Music is like a sea,” he says. “There is no limit and no top level. You always learn.”

His teachers—and his fans—hope the Turkish state will give him a chance.

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