Members of a famous music school were airlifted out of Afghanistan. The coordination effort took place at Otis | South Berkshires


OTIS – From a home here in this hill town, a daring, dangerous, complicated and ultimately successful rescue effort was coordinated beginning last August. He did international news. It is music to the ears of the world.

The outcome came on December 13, when a community of schoolchildren from the National Institute of Music of Afghanistan (ANIM) landed in Lisbon, Portugal – to safety, freedom and a future far from one who would have demanded their silence.

Lesley Friedman Rosenthal, a part-time resident of Otis, was in Portugal to greet them. So was Jessica Lustig, a part-time resident of Great Barrington.

Portugal Afghanistan Musicians

Afghan passengers disembark from a plane at the military airport in Lisbon, Monday, December 13, 2021. A group of 273 students, faculty members and their families from the National Institute of Music of Afghanistan arrived in Portugal, where they get asylum and where they hope to rebuild their famous school.

“It was remarkable to see the young music students, their teachers and their families stepping off the plane,” said Rosenthal, president of the US-based Friends of ANIM. “These 273 people, whose lives and safety I had been so concerned about over so many government agency lists, whose lives and safety I had been so concerned about over the past four months, suddenly appeared before us, with a look on their faces, I can only describe hope.

Rosenthal and Lustig represent two-thirds of the members of the board of directors of Friends of ANIMthe charity group which, from 2016, supported the school, the first and only music academy in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The school, which opened in 2010, had gained international acclaim for teaching Afghan and Western music to a mixed student body amid threats from the Taliban, the militant Islamist regime that had outright banned non-religious music when he led Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The third member of Friends of ANIM is the school’s founder and director, Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast, who is still suffering from the physical effects following a Taliban attack on his school in 2014.

The philanthropic efforts of Friends of ANIM took a dramatic turn in August with the withdrawal of US military troops from the country and the ensuing consolidation of Taliban control.

Friends of ANIM

Part-time Great Barrington resident Jessica Lustig, left, and part-time Otis resident Lesley Friedman Rosenthal were both in Portugal last month to welcome National Institute students, faculty and family music from Afghanistan. Thanks in large part to their efforts, the school was rescued from Afghanistan and relocated to Portugal, with its founder and director, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, at the center.

Rosenthal, who is chief operating officer of the Juilliard School, the performing arts conservatory in New York, and Lustig, the founder of a New York-based advertising, advocacy and consulting firm, have pledged Around the clock to help Dr. Sarmast save the school.

They contacted and received support from political leaders, veterans, scholars and artists, including local musicians Yo Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

“It became clear, within just a few days, that the only way to save the school was through a massive evacuation and airlift of the entire school community,” Rosenthal said.

Meanwhile, videos began to surface showing Taliban operatives making a public display of destroying musical instruments. The Taliban had taken over the school campus.

“They had appropriated laptops with student files. They didn’t allow Dr. Sarmast and the students to come in and pick up their instruments,” Rosenthal said. “And we have pictures of broken instruments and school facilities occupied by Taliban armed with Kalashnikovs. I mean, just really heartbreaking.

She described the rescue efforts as frantic.

Indeed, reports from Kabul told how seven buses full of people associated with the school were left waiting at the airport for 17 hours, unable to board their plane amid fears of a terrorist attack. . With this in mind, evacuation efforts have become less visible; efforts moved more slowly and included waves of small groups.

Ultimately, the evacuation consisted of five airflights of 273 school members (including students, staff and immediate family) over a six-week period from October 2 through the end of November.

Afghan School of Music

Students from the National Institute of Music of Afghanistan, ANIM, are evacuated from Kabul Afghanistan on their way to Doha, Qatar early Monday, October 4, 2021.

The first stop was Doha, Qatar, whose government provided shelter and helped negotiate with the Taliban to ensure safe passage. Then the school community flew on December 13 to Portugal, where they were offered asylum.

“Friends of ANIM are now working to re-establish school in Portugal so that Afghan music and music education can continue for girls and boys in the ANIM community,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal and Lustig never imagined their charitable efforts to support a school 7,000 miles away would one day come to this – essentially establishing a war hall in the Berkshires in 2021.

The National Institute of Music of Afghanistan first entered their lives when students from the institute came to the United States as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. United in Kabul in 2013.

At the time, Lustig’s company, 21C Media Group, was handling arrangements for the tour, and Rosenthal’s son was studying music at a public school in Scarsdale, NY, where the family has a home. As part of the program, Afghan student musicians were paired with local high school orchestras, including Scarsdale’s, for a series of concerts in New York, Boston and Washington, DC.

“And we absolutely fell in love with these students and the essence of the school, which is to make music rights accessible to every child, regardless of ethnicity, economic status or gender, and to restore the cultural rights of the Afghan people,” Rosenthal said.

Afghan School of Music

In this photo from May 11, 2010, Sonam, right, learns to play the violin at the National Institute of Music in Kabul, Afghanistan. In this town where music was illegal less than ten years ago, a new generation of children are being raised to understand its joys.

She noted that many Afghan students at the time were born under the Taliban regime. When the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban from power beginning October 7, 2001, the US State Department, the World Bank, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, among others, finally rallied behind the efforts of Sarmast to form a school. for girls and boys music teachers and academics.

The series of concerts in 2013 and the publicity that followed “did not endear the school to the Taliban”, Rosenthal said. Although the Taliban were no longer in power, they remained a threatening force.

The proof came in December 2014, with a suicide bombing at a student concert that killed one concertgoer and injured many others. Sarmast had to be flown to Australia for treatment. His hearing was permanently damaged.

“The needs were clear,” Lustig said. “He had threats against his life and threats against his school.”

With the formation of Friends of ANIM in 2016, Sarmast, his staff and his students knew the world had his back.

Afghan School of Music

In this file photo from September 16, 2021, fighters from the Haqqani Network appear in a hall at the National Institute of Music of Afghanistan, ANIM, in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By June 2021, students at the school had begun to experience a higher degree of bullying and a sense of impending danger. Sarmast then spoke to Rosenthal and Lustig about the need to build a wall around the school for protection.

But at the beginning of August, he realized that a wall would not be enough. On the eve of Kabul’s capture by the Taliban, Sarmast again contacted his dear friends Rosenthal and Lustig, who quickly got to work.

“Clearly music is not welcome in Afghanistan,” Sarmast told National Public Radio in December. “Since the day the Taliban returned to Kabul, you see that Afghanistan has been [turned] once again in a silent nation.

When the school community landed in Portugal, its members included newborn boys and octogenarian grandparents. And among the few possessions recovered from their homeland were musical instruments.

This includes common western classical instruments, but also traditional Afghan instruments. The drums are called tablas and dhols. Plucked string instruments are called rubabs. Afghan music is a world unto itself – a multi-ethnic mix that leans heavily towards Persian melodies and poetry.

Portugal, rendezvous with Afghanistan.

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