Even after two decades, Ayman Jarjour vividly recalls the place where he lived for his first two years at International House in New York City.
“It was Room 414 in the South Building, the place where I stayed the least,” he said, sitting in the Dining Hall on a crisp fall morning. “I think that was part of the design – you have a small room, but very nice communal spaces, so you spend less time in your room and more time meeting other Residents and being part of the community,” he added, smiling.
Jarjour, a Syrian-born classical guitarist and Resident at I-House from 1997 – 2000, returned to New York earlier this November to perform at a benefit concert for I-House’s Welcome Fund.
For Jarjour, I-House was a transformative place that he came upon by chance. Having completed his undergraduate studies in Classical Guitar in Madrid, Jarjour was teaching at the High Institute of Music in Damascus when he decided to go to The Juilliard School of Music in New York to pursue a Master’s degree in Music. The acceptance came – but his promised housing fell through. At the suggestion of an American diplomat in Damascus, an Alumna of I-House herself, Jarjour reached out to the residence.
“That was one of the best things I did,” he continued. “You have a much wider experience, and you can meet people from other disciplines.” There were many moments at I-House that stuck out to him: hearing a lecture by Nelson Mandela; dining at Sunday Supper with Walter Cronkite; his favorite hangout spots, the Main Lounge and the Soros Room; and the friends he made from all over the world with whom he is still in touch. And it was here, at I-House, where Jarjour met his wife, Alyson King ’00– during a weekend retreat in upstate New York for new and returning Residents.
Working as a professional guitarist, Jarjour has been giving performances around the world and private lessons in Sterling, Scotland, where he resides. But as his native Syria fell into a worsening conflict, Jarjour has also been committed to playing concerts to raise money for organizations that help people in the country and Syrian refugees who have settled in Europe and the United States. Jarjour’s concert at I-House, for instance, was a benefit for the Welcome Fund, which was created in 2017 to provide financial assistance to residents who have faced displacement or hardship due to political upheaval or economic conditions in their home countries. To date, Residents from countries such as Nigeria, Turkey, and Venezuela as well as Syria have benefited from its help.
For him, the guitar has become something more than music.
“Some people are able to deliver humanitarian aid, some people are able to go and heal the wounded, and some people can go and build houses for refugees,” Jarjour said. “My skill is to play the guitar.”
Dressed in a light gray suit, Jarjour chatted with guests who arrived that evening. Under the crystal chandelier in the spacious auditorium, Davis Hall, Jarjour began his concert, playing several classical Spanish and Latin American songs solo. Within this set, Jarjour played an arrangement of a Syrian folk song called “Hal Asmar Ellon.” As he played the soulful tune, a few faces in the crowd quietly sighed.
“The old generation meets the new generation,” Jarjour said, grinning at Resident and cellist Wick Simmons (USA) , who joined him onstage. They played a duet of “Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5,” by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Following the duet, they were joined by Resident and soprano Lebo Mahlar (South Africa), and a former classmate of Jarjour’s from Juilliard, Claudia Schaer, for different pieces. A surprise guest performer concluded the program with a song of welcome and encouragement to refugees.
For Simmons, working with Jarjour that evening was a new learning experience.
“I was very fortunate to have been asked to be part of this,” said Simmons, a second-year Resident studying for a Master’s degree in Contemporary Performance at the Manhattan School of Music. “It was a great opportunity to perform outside academia,” he added.
At the post-concert reception, over plates of cheeses, olives, and crackers, the concertgoers never left Jarjour’s side – they thanked him, asking him to sign CDs that they had bought. For one I-House Resident, Warda Sahtout (Syria), the Syrian guitarist’s appearance tonight was special, especially his rendition of “Hal Asmar Ellon,” the Syrian folk song.
“Everyone sings it in Syria. They love song, they love music,” said Sahtout, a refugee from Damascus who is studying Conflict Resolution at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. “Music is the best expression for everyone,” she added, pausing for a moment before continuing. “And this song means home.”
The last time Jarjour was back in I-House was in the summer of 2012, when he visited New York for several days with his wife and two children. As a globetrotter himself who has lived in several cities across the world, Jarjour organizes I-House Alumni events wherever he goes, from Damascus to Brussels, and this past September, in Scotland – bringing together past Residents of the house, young and old.
“I-House was established on the idea of opening people to each other, promoting international dialogue and understanding, and I think it’s great that the House is still continuing its mission,” Jarjour said. “The ideas of dialogue, openness, welcoming – being open to others – are what should be the way forward.”
Albert Han is an I-House Resident and Master of Science candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He focuses on international news, feature stories, and the journalism of ideas in both print and multimedia. Follow him on Twitter @albertybhan and Instagram alberthan_.
Ayman Jarjour and Wick Simmons – “Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5” by Heitor Villalobos
(Audio clips and photos by Albert Han for International House)
(Additional photos by Sepideh Behzadpour for International House)