Life as we know it has stopped.
But creativity has not stopped,
because creativity can never stop, especially for children.

(Sevasti Matsakidou, Communications Manager, El Sistema Greece)

The first time I visited El Sistema Greece, I couldn’t find the address, but was led by the feint wafting sound of violins to a non-descript office building in the bustling, multi-cultural neighborhood of Kipseli, Athens. As I climbed the drab concrete stairs to the fourth floor, with each flight, the sound of high-pitched stringed instruments grew closer. When I arrived, the door flung open and two older boys were just leaving, one carrying a cello case, the other what appeared to be a trombone. Then the Communications Manager, Sevi came rushing in, introduced herself and offered a cup of tea. There were three classrooms set up for group lessons, and I observed one for beginning strings. Kids from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, one as young as seven maybe, sat in a semi-circle around their teacher, all fiercely concentrating as they practiced their scales.

I soon learned the school is modeled on the original El Sistema in Venzuela, where the legendary conductor, Gustav Dudamel got his start. It is far more than just a music education program, but a comprehensive social action and inclusion program designed to empower youth from marginalized backgrounds to develop and thrive through music. In Athens, the program brings together youth from refugee, migrant and Greek backgrounds, offering free choir and orchestral instrument classes daily. They also run a youth orchestra. I had come to meet them a week before the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to shut down.

“It caught us all quite by surprise. And because none of this was expected, it’s unknown territory for us,” Anis Barnat, the Co-Founder, tells me during a phone interview. “It’s like we are living in a parallel universe,” he pauses. “We are all just waiting for better times.”

Anis spoke enthusiastically about all the plans and projects they had coming up—a concert at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, a lullaby project, pairing composers and mothers in prisons and refugee camps with known musical artists to compose lullabies to their children, and a new youth leadership initiative. All of this had come to a screeching halt.

Due to the global pandemic, the country had proceeded to a full lockdown, severely curtailing movement for all citizens, requiring people to text a central number to get permission to go outside even for exercise. Curious as to how El Sistema Greece was dealing with these restrictions, I gave Anis a call. His General Manager, Hara Chrissykopoulou joined us. We were just short of two weeks into the lockdown, and they were beginning to feel the weight of it. Both of them sounded tired. “Believe it or not, after discovering the joys of e-video conferencing, it can be really exhausting.” Anis shared. We discussed how this massive global online shift had initially been great for artists, musicians, music itself—Italy’s spontaneous balcony arias setting a poignant stage that would be replicated throughout Europe—but we all wondered how long it would last.

Hara told me how El Sistema had scrambled in the last week to get their teachers to follow a video protocol, uploading video lessons and maintaining regular contact with their students, but it was proving complicated. "We try as much as possible to make it a fun experience,” she said. “Not like we want to stress them out more than they already are, by saying…you must practice, but imagine, most of the kids we work with are already living in tough conditions, either in camps or tiny apartments all day long with nothing to do. Everybody is struggling.”

Like many youth education programs worldwide, El Sistema Greece had to pivot and adapt quickly. What impressed me was how open they were to suggestions from their students, and how dedicated they were to making it work.

Francis Maylín Gagliardi, a Venezuelan French horn player and recent transplant to Greece agreed. She’d been teaching music theory, initiation and French horn at El Sistema for a little over a year. She explained to me how important it was to present herself on her weekly lesson videos with this same energy, to “show our faces so they know we are here for them.” She also pointed out how virtual communication had opened up new pathways for the students who in the past were too shy to share in person, due to language limitations or personalities. Some of the students started openly sharing and giving feedback via private texts, WhatsApp and the Facebook group. One student wrote, “At least we have our horns to practice I can’t imagine what would have happened if we didn’t have them.” Another commented, “I am missing the classes, and you!”

Stavros Klavanidis, who taught all the brass classes was concerned about the quality of the sound. They were training these young musicians to improve their sound, after all. The technical limitations of sharing music online with basic video tools was frustrating for him, but he was encouraged when his students started asking for more assignments. “As a musician, I always believed that music is a limitless art. Most likely an art with more infinite limits than mathematics. What I hadn’t realized, though, was that the power of music is immense and can easily unite, inspire and motivate in an unceasing way, even via technological means, such as the Internet.”

The administrative team also relied on the guidance of a renowned Greek child psychologist, Panayiotis Tsirides, who is their Pedagogical Coordinator. Panayiotis helped to design the educational framework of the classes to address appropriate solutions to the challenges their students face. “Poverty, migration due to poverty and even more so the act of fleeing war are traumatic conditions. Under these conditions, children and youth lose confidence in the society that surrounds them or even worse, they lose confidence in themselves,” he explained. An El Sistema student who learns how to play a musical instrument and participates in the concerts and activities El Sistema provides for them can strengthen his/her identity as an active member of a social group, also providing a sense of belonging and purpose.

During times of quarantine, children experience an acute sense that they are losing touch with the outside world. Compounded by their specific living conditions, in impoverished conditions or refugee camps, an anxious teenager for instance cannot easily find outlets for their confused feelings of isolation and fear. The fear of death of their parents and grandparents can be quite scary, with the very young often believing they are somehow to blame. For teen-agers especially, distancing themselves from their family and parents is vital to their social and emotional development, but in the case of the Coronavirus, the exact opposite was happening. In structuring the video lessons, Panayiotis encouraged the teachers also to be free to be themselves, because this is what their students remembered and needed to see. Mostly they all realized the kids just wanted reassurance every day. Getting to see their music teachers’ smiling faces might be enough.

Even so, for Francis, sometimes it felt like she was putting a mask on her face, not the ubiquitous medical masks people were now forced to wear daily in the streets, but a different sort of mask. “I’ve had to teach myself how to edit, and I see myself on camera, trying to show a happy face, to be mentally safe for the kids, but it’s not so easy every day.” Also, because the entire city of Athens was now pretty much online 24-7, the bandwidth is clogged. At first it took Sevi four hours to upload one video.

Another concern was how the kids in the refugee camps were coping. After almost two months of online lessons, a lot of students began facing difficulties with their practice due to out of tune instruments, broken strings or an instrument damage. El Sistema Greece instrument and orchestra manager alongside the artistic director, after receiving a special permission from the camp management and taking all necessary precautions, visited Skaramagas Refugee Camp to tend to their students and their instruments. That day, more than fifteen violins and violas were tuned and repaired!

Throughout the Corona crisis, Greece has stood out from the rest of Europe as a country that responded early, implementing and enforcing the “menoume sto spiti” campaign or “stay at home policy,” which undoubtedly has kept its infection and mortality rates due to Covid-19 well below the surrounding norm. As of June 1st, Greece had 2,937 reported cases and just 179 have died. However, as tourists returned and restrictions eased, cases started to rise. Each week the Greek government would announce new measures to continue to try and contain the virus.

Living here, I have witnessed a growing and remarkable sense of trust developing between the Greek political and medical establishment and its citizens, something that was lacking before, and clearly not the case in other European countries. Still, I wondered about the refugee and migrant populations here, the very communities that El Sistema Greece serves, and whether or not the already fraught relations with the Greek State for mistreatment and human rights violations would fracture further. “I am afraid that this social isolation due to coronavirus will lead to further social isolation of the “different others” living in my country,” Panayiotis warned.

Just days before the declared lockdown, thousands of new refugees were trapped near Evros, on the Greek/Turkish border. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fatigued with a failed EU refugee policy, opened Turkey’s borders, spurring a new mass exodus to Greece, a brazen blackmail that put hundreds of innocent migrants at risk. The situation in Evros was a political keg just about to explode, with both sides moving towards a military confrontation. Tensions on the “hot spot” islands of Lesvos, Chios and Samos were also mounting between refugees crammed into squalid, overcrowded camps and residents fed up with the ongoing crisis.

In short, Greece was already facing a huge humanitarian crisis before Corona was even on the horizon. Most refugee and migrant families already in Greece were terrified of what the future might hold. Some were facing evictions, others the prospect of deportation. In a country that had once welcomed them, outright acts of discrimination and violence against refugees could be witnessed on busses, shops, schools. I watched in disbelief one morning as an elderly Greek woman screamed at another woman wearing a hijab outside a metro station, to “go back where you came from, we are Christians here..." The atmosphere was not at all easy for anyone to navigate emotionally, let alone a child.

“We’re talking about music, after all,” Sevi pauses, then laughs. “Music is something alive,” she stressed. Personally for her the Covid-19 crisis made her realize how special El Sistema is, and how what they learned could be an example for other community-based organizations struggling with the new normal. “It’s not just a job anymore for me, we have so many children, and they are showing us the way, this is something quite special for me, I have really gained strength and faith in what we do here.”

Several months later I was finally able to visit the El Sistema school again, following that sweet, scraping sound of beginners’ strings up the stairs to the classrooms. This time there were only nine students in one class, practicing social distancing, their chairs placed safely equidistant, face masks temporarily hanging from their music stands. Sevi told me they had been open for a week and were only hosting several classes twice a week. That day I met Siad Rashid, Houssam and Asim, cousins from Afghanistan who were thrilled to be back with their teacher, Giannis. Asim told me during the quarantine days, his violin helped him forget whatever was going on outside, and Houssam shared he was so bored at home missing his friends, he would grab his violin like a friend to keep him from being lonely. Packing up to leave, Karem from Syria told me he wanted to one day play professionally. Back in Damascus where he left three years ago, his grandfather and uncle had been violin players, learning the instrument helped him connect to a home he dearly missed. Soft spoken with gentle eyes the color of sea-green, he told me how much he loved El Sistema. “No one here says, oh my God that’s a Syrian, I will not speak to him, we’re all the same here, we are a team.”

Coming out of Covid-19, our social fabric may be fractured and our global economies might be weaker, but for the staff and students of El Sistema, it is clear that what they experienced only strengthened their community, and they will not be deterred by broken strings. They are in fact setting a new tonal truth for this moment-- just as the virus does not discriminate between age, origin, religious belief or economic class, the hope El Sistema shared with me was how commonality, and the universal language of music, laughter and sharing can help us all recover. As Plato put it, music is a moral rule. Without it, we have no soul.

Panayiotis sums it up: “With an optimistic outlook, I think that when this ‘war’ is over, we will all be more mature and optimistic. We will focus on our true desires and maintain the virtue of solidarity towards the weak. With a pessimistic outlook, I can imagine things going on as they used to in the past. In any case, our work will remain the same: to try to create, through music and creative encounters with others, a better world.”