London Phoenix Orchestra and Chorus

Concert for peace in Syria with Help Refugees.

London Phoenix Orchestra and Chorus at St John’s Smith Square on 01 March 2018. Content by Dee McCourt of

A WOMAN’S extraordinary musical trek meant her young family escaped Syria’s civil war – and now it stops off in London next month, to help people still suffering in her homeland.

The two-year journey has seen professional musician Raghad Haddad endure a lengthy separation from her husband and yound son to play alongside international artists including Damon Albarn and Paul Weller, as well as appearing in venues across Europe as varied as Glastonbury, the Royal Festival Hall – and asylum seekers’ accommodation in Birmingham.

An extraordinary story…

Now viola virtuoso Raghad is to take centre stage herself in a charity concert with the London Phoenix Orchestra and Chorus at the world-famous St John’s Smith Square to provide physiotherapy and sanitation in her homeland of Syria on 01 March 2018.

Organisers raised the staging costs of more than £4,000 via crowdfunding and corporate donors, so all money from ticket sales and collections at the performance on 01 March 2018 will go directly to the acclaimed Help Refugees (HR) charity. Every £50 raised can help HR provide medical treatment for ten people in Syria for a whole month.

The programme includes a rare performance of Bruch’s Concerto for Clarinet and Viola in E Minor – in which clarinettist Sheena Balmain will join Raghad – as well as the challenging ‘Choral’ Symphony No9 in D Minor by Beethoven, plus excerpts from Faure’s Requiem. The conductor is Lev Parikian and tickets priced £15 and £12 (£9 concessions) for the 7.30pm concert .

Raghad, 36, fought to win refugee status to stay in the UK and from her South Coast home is now working hard to build a new life here for her husband, a trained luthier and piano tuner, and son Gaby, now five.  As well as freelancing as a musician, and translation work, she is a member of the newly formed London Syrian Ensemble a collective of Syria’s finest musicians based in the UK, bringing the sounds of Syria through a diverse repertoire of classical and traditional music from the region.

It’s a world apart from the destruction and suffering they managed to escape: as a member of the Syrian National Orchestra, she ran a daily 100-mile gauntlet of snipers and checkpoints travelling by minibus from her home city of Yabroud to the capital, Damascus where she also taught at the Higher Institute of music. She has recalled [in the i]: “Every time I prayed: ‘Just let me get back to my son’.”

A friend was killed when a mortar struck the opera house shortly before Raghad and colleagues were to perform there, in 2014. Yet she had to continue playing as music was the family’s only income – she taught in the national conservatoire too; finally music also provided their escape route.  

Raghad was asked to join Albarn’s collective Africa Express and played across Europe as part of the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, to great acclaim. At the end of the tour, she had a stark choice: return to her family and the war – or try and start a new solo life abroad, aiming to help her husband and son to follow.

So as the best English speaker in a group of nine Syrian artistes, Raghad was the one to make their first, faltering appeal for asylum to UK border control staff at Heathrow.


After fingerprinting, interviews and lengthy stays in a reception centre followed by accommodation in Leeds for the six men and in Birmingham for the three women including Raghad, all nine musicians were granted permission to stay in the UK.

But Raghad’s escape was by no means complete: it took a further round of proving to immigration officials that her husband and son made up a genuine family before finally the trio were reunited, again at Heathrow, last May – although after a year apart, Gaby didn’t recognise his mother and was shocked at her speaking Arabic to him.

Persuading her anxious husband to quit Syria and bring their son to join her had itself been a battle: “He wanted me to come back. I told him on the phone; he was very, very angry. For one month he didn’t speak with me.” (The i)*. They are settled and much happier now, living close to other Syrian refugees in Brighton – and determined to help the dispossessed in their homeland, via this charity concert.

Raghad says:

‘Every day I hear of someone I know being injured or killed.  It makes me deeply sad and I worry constantly about my mother and two brothers in Syria.  My son is lucky – despite everything he has been through he is now safe, and other children deserve the same.  There are strong people fighting for their life, and my musician friends are playing bravely through their fear.  Through my music I want to show the bright and true face of the Syrian people and to heal the wounds caused by the war in my lovely homeland’

Concert organiser and fellow viola player Susannah Rang said: “I found myself playing in an orchestra with Raghad and her story inspired me to do more to help.

“It’s hard to imagine the bravery required to take such a decision [to leave her home country]. There is a desperate shortage of physiotherapy, so we are going to fund that. By helping people to rehabilitate more quickly they will be able to join the building work, and speed up the process of bringing a better life to everyone there. My challenge is to fill St John’s Smith Square on 01 March !”

London Phoenix Orchestra and Chorus

Raghad Haddad viola

1 March - 7.30pm St John's Smith Square

The message of universal brotherhood embodied in Beethoven’s ‘Choral’ Symphony has resonated down the ages, making it an appropriate choice for this concert which is in aid of Help Refugees UK.

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