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Syrian pianist pursues her dream of studying music

Rada Hanana and Nicholas PhillipsA chance encounter with an American stranger in Beirut, Lebanon, triggered a series of fortunate events that has brought a talented Syrian classical pianist to UW-Eau Claire, where she is pursuing her dream of studying music. 

Rada Hanana was a 21-year-old student studying piano at the Conservatory of Damascus in Syria when the civil war broke out in her country. As the violence escalated, Hanana abandoned her studies to support the many injured and displaced people whose lives were torn apart by the war.

“I quickly got involved and was very enthusiastic about the revolution,” said Hanana, who also worked as a music theory teacher at a music school in Damascus. “In addition to teaching, I worked in community service just like everybody else because a lot of people needed help. It was something everyone did to help our country and our people. But then friends started disappearing. Friends were kidnapped and tortured and many wouldn’t come back. It was intense.”

As the conflict continued, she found herself in several terrifying situations where she thought she likely would be killed.

“The last time I was trapped for six hours as everything around me was being shelled,” Hanana said. “Surviving that changed me. My mind was very busy with what was going on around me. I was worried about my friends who disappeared. I forgot my personal dreams.”

Within days, Hanana made the decision to leave her parents and her country for Beirut, where she hoped she could rebuild her life.

“A friend offered me a ride to Beirut so I could take a break, but I knew if I went, I would not come back home until the war was over,” Hanana said. “I took a day to think about it and then told my parents I was going. It was very hard, but I thought if I left the country I could again study music. I thought if I studied hard and practiced hard I would be well again.”

Hanana went to Beirut with $70, two small bags of belongings and the names of people her Syrian friends said she could call on for help. She arrived as thousands of other Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon to escape the violence in their home country.

Staying in small apartments with generous friends of friends and working long hours in low-paying jobs, life in Beirut — an expensive city in a politically unstable country — was difficult.

“I found a waitressing job in a really crummy place, but then I worked in a nice bar,” Hanana said of her early months in Beirut. “I had no choice but to work long hours for not much money because I was a Syrian without a work permit, so I couldn’t complain. But at least I had skills so I could find jobs. Many weren’t so lucky. I moved five times in seven months but was fortunate to have people who helped me along the way.”

To cope with the daily stress, Hanana began seeking out opportunities to play piano in cafes or other venues that would allow her to practice.

“In Beirut, I was still having war dreams — I’d wake up terrified from nightmares,” Hanana said. “Life was stressful, but when I played the piano it was like I was in a bubble. Nothing bad could happen to me when I was playing. So I would work at night and then at 9 a.m. start looking for a place to practice. I’d play six hours a day when I could. It was the only time I felt free and safe.”

For a while, I almost lost sight of my music. But music is my joy; it’s my thing in life. I’m so fortunate to be here studying what I love. I’m more confident about my gift than I’ve ever been before. I’ve been given an amazing chance, and I plan to make the most of it. — Rada Hanana

Distraught one day after being told she could no longer practice in a cafe, she was so lost in her thoughts that she didn’t realize she was wandering in a street with cars honking around her until a young man approached to ask if she needed help. After listening to her story, Andrew Bartles told her he was a graduate student at the American University in Beirut. There was a piano there, he said, that she was welcome to play.

“I went with him to the university,” Hanana said. “It was once I started playing, I think, that Andrew began to really believe everything I had told him. He saw how passionate I was and how desperately I needed to play.”

The two became close friends, spending many hours talking about their lives and their dreams.

“I told him that my dream always has been to study music so I can one day teach piano to children in Syria,” Hanana said. “I told him that I couldn’t see how I could make that happen, but I couldn’t let go of the dream.”

Hanana soon found a job teaching at a music school in Beirut. The hours were long, but the pay was better. She rented her own apartment, had access to a piano and her mother came to stay with her for several months.

Still, she continued to yearn for an opportunity to again study music.

Bartles, a native of Dixon, Ill., had told his parents about Hanana and her talent and passion for the piano. His parents shared her story with their friends in Illinois, including an emeritus voice professor at Western Illinois University.

Intrigued, the NIU professor passed Hanana’s story to Nicholas Phillips, a pianist and associate professor of music at UW-Eau Claire.

“I played for her during a performance in South Korea three years ago,” Phillips said of the NIU professor. “We stayed in touch afterward, so she thought of me when she heard about Rada. After hearing Rada’s story, I really wanted to help.”

Phillips sent word to Hanana via Bartles that he was interested in trying to bring her to UW-Eau Claire.

“Somehow, Rada found a way to make an audition video in Beirut, which she put on YouTube,” Phillips said. “I watched her YouTube audition and was very impressed, especially knowing that she had to make the video in such difficult circumstances. I knew right away that bringing her here would be good for UW-Eau Claire and good for her. We have a wonderful music department, and Rada enhances that by bringing an international perspective shaped by personal events. I think our students will learn from her and vice versa.”

Confident that Hanana would be a good fit for UW-Eau Claire’s music program, Phillips asked the UW-Eau Claire Foundation for help.

“I knew she’d be an excellent addition to our campus, so I started exploring all options to bring her here,” Phillips said. “Fortunately, the Foundation provided a generous scholarship, Andrew’s parents did a lot of fundraising and Sen. Tammy Baldwin helped us work through student visa issues. It’s amazing that it all worked out the way that it did.”

Hanana’s decision to flee her home country so she could pursue her passion for music and education was inspiring, said Kimera Way, president of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation.

“Her story really touched me,” Way said. “We here in Wisconsin are so far removed from the personal challenges people in war-torn parts of the world live with every day. Having Rada on our campus to share her story and perspectives is an incredible opportunity for everyone.

“At UW-Eau Claire, students can obtain an education in a safe and supportive environment. It seemed like we should do everything we could to make that opportunity possible for a young woman with such passion and drive that she was willing to move not once but twice just so she could finish her studies and pursue her love for playing the piano.”

The Foundation used monies from its Global Awareness Fund to help bring Hanana to UW-Eau Claire, Way said. The fund was created by members of the Foundation board to help support international education at UW-Eau Claire, she said.

Providing the scholarship reflects the UW-Eau Claire Foundation’s belief that through small acts people can make a big difference, Way said.

“Helping Rada get to Eau Claire isn’t going to make peace happen in Syria or Lebanon, but by using Foundation scholarship dollars designated to expand our campus’ global awareness we could, in a relatively small act, make a big difference for one person,” Way said. “Rada has great dreams, and our investment in her will be realized through the lives she will impact when she graduates and strives to fulfill her life’s work.”

Hanana spent her first semester at UW-Eau Claire in an intensive English program, enhancing her language skills so she’d be better prepared to succeed in her studies. She said learning a new language and adjusting to a new country and culture was challenging, especially given all she’d been through in recent years. While thrilled to be at UW-Eau Claire, she said she struggled with depression and self-doubt during the fall.

Fortunately, she said, she found support from people on campus and in the Eau Claire community who provided advice and encouragement as she worked to find her way.

She credits Phillips, a wonderful community host family and new college friends with helping her prepare to fully embrace her new life and the opportunities she’s been given.

“Dr. Phillips has been very generous,” Hanana said of her adviser and mentor. “During the fall, he let me play the piano and gave me lessons even though I wasn’t in any music classes. It made me so happy to play. He’s helped me so much already.”

Her off-campus apartment now feels like home, she said, adding that her loving host family gives her a sense of belonging.

With spring semester underway, Hanana is taking general education and music classes, earning her first credits toward her long-desired music degree.

“I feel like I am on the right path for achieving my dream,” she said.

As she works toward that dream, Hanana said she hopes faculty and fellow students will see her as a person and as a musician, not just as someone who has overcome challenges to become a student here.

“I do not want people to only give me credit for being from Syria and because we have a war going on over there,” Hanana said. “I would like them to see me as an individual and give me credit for my music and personality. A lot of Syrians did a lot for Syria and other people there. I was not the only one.”

Hanana hopes to complete her undergraduate degree at UW-Eau Claire and then continue her studies at a graduate school in the United States.

Eventually, she plans to return to Syria — if the war is over — to teach music to young children who have been impacted by war.

“I love teaching and would love to teach in Damascus,” Hanana said. “Music is what I’ve always known. It’s part of who I am.

“For a while, I almost lost sight of my music. But music is my joy; it’s my thing in life. I’m so fortunate to be here studying what I love. I’m more confident about my gift than I’ve ever been before. I’ve been given an amazing chance, and I plan to make the most of it.”