Almost overnight, the lives of Negin and Hamid, two young musicians in Afghanistan, were changed forever. As the Taliban rolled across the country in July 2021, the recently-married couple – and new parents to a baby girl – knew they had to make a choice: stay in Afghanistan, where music would soon be outlawed under Taliban rule, or flee, leaving behind their family and friends.
Negin, Afghanistan’s first female orchestra conductor, had already faced scrutiny by hardline members of her community for performing publicly, and her husband Hamid, an accomplished tabla player, knew his instruments faced imminent danger.
So, the couple chose. On Aug. 24, 2021, they arrived in the United States on a refugee visa, with the daunting task of starting over. Hamid’s tabla, which was destroyed by the Taliban shortly after the couple left Afghanistan, had been replaced by a donor. The future, though uncertain, looked bright.
Now, Negin and Hamid have settled into their new life in Alexandria, Virginia, along with around 76,000 other Afghan refugees who have settled in the area, according to DCist. With the help of their resettlement agency, Lutheran Immigration and Relief Service, which received a grant from the Walmart Foundation at the outset of the refugee crisis, they’ve purchased a car, moved into an apartment and returned to focusing on music.
Negin is studying conducting from a student of famed American conductor Marin Alsop. She’s also expanding her experience – learning musical composition and piano. Hamid is taking tabla lessons, learning theory from people who’ve played around the world and performing live whenever he gets the chance.
With these new experiences, they’ve also found new opportunities.
Negin and Hamid were invited by the conductor of the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, James Ross, to be part of a special concert honoring the contributions of Afghan artists. Negin conducted two pieces by the acclaimed Afghan singer and composer Ahmad Zahir, and Hamid performed a tabla concerto by Dinuk Wijeratne.
In the audience were over 100 fellow refugees from Afghanistan, who were able to attend the concert for free thanks to three Spark Good Community Grants from Walmart stores in Alexandria. And though attendees came from diverse backgrounds, they were united by a universal language. Symphony season-ticketholders mingled with Afghan refugees, building camaraderie around the shared experience of song.
For attendees from Afghanistan, the evening was a strange mix of the somber and the hopeful.
“It felt amazing, but remembering why Negin is here is also heartbreaking,” said Shughla Hellali, who had seen Negin perform before. “Realizing I’ll never hear her play in Afghanistan anymore brings a lot of emotions.”
Ross said he believes the event brought people together who otherwise may not have had a reason to gather.
“People come because they appreciate classical music and orchestra…and starting with this idea that we feature some recently arrived, unbelievably gifted Afghan musicians, we actually made this an event for people who may not normally choose to come,” Ross said. “And we made it easy, with the help of Walmart, for [them] to come.”
But to the conductor, the particularly moving point of the evening came as the music was set to begin.
“When I walked out onstage, I looked at the audience and immediately felt unbelievably proud that this collection of people was there around a theme, which was music and women and going for it even when the world seems to say no,” Ross said. “But we have to keep saying yes.”