Xenia Mathys teaches a music lesson to Syrian refugees at Humanwire on Friday in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)
FROM THE DAILY CAMERA: http://www.dailycamera.com/cu-news/ci_30939635/cu-boulder-student-family-provide-gift-music-young
In middle of the night, magic of Mozart and more shared with distant audience
The honey-colored glow of the Sundown Saloon’s neon sign illuminated faces of rowdy youth out late on a Friday night, but 20-year-old Xenia Mathys’ eyes —not once drifting to the second-story window overlooking Pearl Street — were locked on her rambunctious class of Syrian refugees.
Since September, the University of Colorado sophomore and her family have been crafting a different sort of Friday night plan: lesson plans. Xenia along with her piano instructor mom, Elena, and CU computer engineering professor dad, Peter, teach music and computer programming classes to children eight to 12-years-old living in a refugee camp near the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
The melodious chirps of a Skype call ring throughout a downtown Boulder office promptly at 11 p.m., and Xenia’s class of two girls and three boys pops onto the screen. Xenia greets the children by name, and translator Eyad Al-Khalidy, who is sitting with the kids in their 8 a.m. lesson, relays what everyone will be learning about today — an opera called “The Magic Flute.”
Xenia is Skyping from the Boulder headquarters of the refugee advocacy organization Humanwire while Elena sits nearby and offers teaching tips and Peter works on his programming lesson. Xenia heads home after her lesson is done around midnight, and then Elena takes over with a new class, sometimes teaching until 4 a.m.
“I don’t consider it humanitarian work,” Elena said. “It’s practically immoral for us not to do something about the refugee crisis. We live very comfortably. This is something we can do.”
With the help of YouTube and Al-Khalidy, Xenia splits the opera into sections the children listen to and then discuss. While the notes crescendo around the mostly barren, white office, the little boys on the computer screen rise from their seats, shut their eyes tight and let their hands dance through the air, mimicking a conductor.
“Music just gives,” she said. “Sensitivity. Discipline. It just gives.”
With Peter hailing from Switzerland and Elena from Latvia, the two took their three children to Europe frequently and had many friends across the world sharing the horrors of the refugee crisis. Willed to action, they found Humanwire and funded a trip to Lebanon a little more than a year ago, meeting with students and their parents living in tents to escape their war-torn country.
“Knowing what they had been through, we wanted to make the classes visual, beautiful and catch their attention,” Elena said. “They are sweet children. They don’t have anything beautiful. Music does that.”
Elena has been teaching her class since September, only missing one Friday the entire time. She’s lost half of her students for the month to potato harvesting, but the seven in her class keep her occupied. During her lesson on Mozart, their mouths gape when they hear his compositions.
“The kids might yawn when you’re talking,” Xenia said. “But when you turn on the music, they just stare. It’s like they’re in a trance.”
After watching a performance, Xenia and Elena will review and eventually test the children on what they know.
“I don’t expect them to remember everything,” Xenia said. “More the idea is to get them to make their own opinions and show them that there’s something beyond what they’re living in. Show them there is something beyond terrorist groups and killing.”
The family hears blips of heartbreak they piece together to form the stories of their students’ lives. One girl mentions the death of her brother when she hears a particular song. Another says she’s familiar with the “Romeo and Juliet” piece they’re watching; she had the book before their tent burned down.
“We have come to the conclusion that teaching is very important,” Peter said. “They can express themselves, and it gives them something to do. They know something better is out there.”
The entire family, including Fairview High School junior Vadim and CU senior Peter Jr., will be headed back to Lebanon in June for some on-the-ground teaching. Vadim and Peter Jr. showed the children how to play computer games on their last trip. Huddled around their kitchen table with a map of Lebanon between them, the family passes around cell phones overflowing with photos of the children in their camps who they now see weekly.
Back in Boulder, Elena spends anywhere from two to seven hours per week lesson planning on her own volunteered time for her Syrian students, on top of the 16 piano students she teaches.
Around 1 a.m., she asks her students how they feel about one of Mozart’s compositions, and one child says it’s beautiful.
“I am so happy to hear you say that,” she said. “That is exactly what I want to hear.”