The Refugee Orchestra Project And The Music Of Inclusion

Story by Katie Simon
Photos by Erin Kennedy

More than 120 audience members filled the pews of First Church Cambridge, waiting for a concert unlike any other: every one of the nearly one hundred musicians on stage was a friend or relative of a refugee, or a refugee themselves.

Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya addressed the crowd. “I’m not a politician; there’s only so much I can do to make an impact,” she said. “But one of the beautiful things about music is that it doesn’t matter what language you speak; we can come together and make music together.”

Yankovskaya founded the Refugee Orchestra Project (ROP) in early 2016, driven by her experiences as a refugee from Russia and the xenophobia she has observed in the United States. She saw music as a way to demonstrate refugees’ contributions to society, transcend cultural barriers and create a space of recognition and support between people from diverse backgrounds.

Today, the organization puts on concerts all over the United States — and like this one held in Cambridge, Massachusetts — they are all performed entirely by refugees, and friends and relatives of refugees, from around the world.

“I think it’s essential for us to recognize just how many immigrants and refugees and people from various countries and various cultures make this country what it is,” said Yankovskaya. 

“We hope to show you the incredible contribution that refugee musicians and performers and composers have made and continue to make to our culture and society,” Yankovskaya told the crowd. (Photo by Erin Kennedy.)
ROP has organized four concerts in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. This was their second performance in Boston. (Photo by Erin Kennedy.) 
“Most of us who came here as refugees do not readily talk about our experiences. It’s not something that easily comes up in conversation. We left where we came from for a reason and many want to put that time behind them. So, many of us learn to blend in and become part of the world around us,” Yankovskaya explained to the audience. (Photo by Erin Kennedy.)
“We are an extraordinarily wealthy nation, and immigrants are the foundation of our diversity, our cultural strength and our innovation. Our physical distance from many of the countries that the world’s refugees are coming from can make it easy to keep our distance emotionally, [but] to maintain a stance of non-involvement in the current global refugee crisis is a shameful mix of hubris, xenophobia and hypocrisy.” —Vera Broekhuysen, soprano (Photo by Erin Kennedy.)
The concert was free to attend and audience contributions totaling $1,300 went to refugee-focused nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee and HIAS. (Photo by Erin Kennedy.)

“America was founded by people who were seeking freedom from oppression; and we, as a nation [that] stands for freedom, should be welcoming. I am a first-generation American whose parents were born in the Philippines. My family was welcomed with open arms. I would like to do the same for others entering this great country.” Rey Soriano, percussion (Photo by Erin Kennedy.)

Katie Simon has been an entrepreneur since age 14 and a writer since she could hold a pen. Her personal finance and career writing has appeared on sites including Business Insider, The Independent, Lifehacker, FOX News,, and Refinery29.

Erin Kennedy moved to New York City in 2007 to attend The Fashion Institute of Technology. In 2011 she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BFA degree in Photography. Kennedy’s work has been featured internationally and exhibited in New York City.

Copyright © 500 Pens. July 2017.