he Dream Orchestra started with just 13 members. Now there are more than 400, including this group performing at a Nobel Foundation event in Gothenburg, Sweden, in December.
Courtesy Anna Svanberg/Nobel Prize Outreach
A conductor invited refugees who’d never played instruments to join his orchestra. It changed his life
By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
15 minute read
Updated 4:12 PM EST, Sat January 13, 2024
Ron Davis Álvarez stood on a train platform in Stockholm, stunned by what he saw.
The Venezuelan orchestra conductor was visiting Sweden as part of a university exchange program. He’d expected his time passing through a train station on the way to visit a student group that day in 2015 to be uneventful.
Instead, he watched throngs of people getting off trains, their faces drawn and exhausted. Volunteers raced past him to hand out bananas and water to the new arrivals.
“I was completely in shock, seeing all of these young boys arriving,” Álvarez recalls.
He asked someone what was going on.
The answer: “They are from Syria and Afghanistan. Many of them are unaccompanied. They traveled here alone.”
“What will happen to them?” Álvarez asked.
No one knew.
It was the kind of overwhelming, desperate scene that’s unfolded in cities all over the world for centuries, and even more visibly in recent years as war, poverty and persecution drive a growing number of people to flee their homes.
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But one thing was different about that moment on the Stockholm train platform.
Álvarez was there watching, and he had an idea.
That idea would change his life, and the lives of hundreds of others he hadn’t met yet. It would take Álvarez and his message to stages across Sweden and across the world. It would make him a better teacher. It would inspire him with hope and fill him with fear. And it would give lost teenagers something they thought they’d never find.
But like most big ideas, it started much smaller.
He launched the orchestra with 13 members. Many had no musical background
It wasn’t long before Álvarez was back in Sweden. He’d been tapped as the artistic director of El Sistema Sweden, based in the coastal city of Gothenburg. It’s one of many programs worldwide inspired by Venezuela’s famed El Sistema, which provides instruments and teaches music to underprivileged youth.
Álvarez first joined El Sistema as a child growing up in a Caracas slum. He learned to play violin and later to become a teacher and conductor. He says the experience shaped his life and gave him opportunities he never expected.
He’d continue that legacy at El Sistema Sweden.
But as he began his new role, the memory of what he’d seen months earlier on the train platform remained seared in his mind.
El Sistema Sweden’s work was focused on younger children enrolled in Swedish schools. The youth he’d seen pouring into the train station were already in their later teenage years. It’s an age when many might assume it’s too late to learn an instrument.
Álvarez knew it wasn’t. And he knew he had to try to help them.
Officials, he says, were harder to convince. Basic needs like food and shelter, he says, were seen as more important than teaching music to the growing number of asylum seekers arriving in Sweden.
So Álvarez says he did what he could, starting small.
Conductor Ron Davis Álvarez founded the Dream Orchestra to help an influx of unaccompanied minors arriving in Sweden. Because many were in their later teenage years and had never played instruments before, he devised different methods to teach them.
Gustavo Bandres/Dream Orchestra
With a handful of instruments on loan, he visited schools to drum up interest. Eventually, he recruited a group of 13 youth from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea and Albania. He dubbed them the Dream Orchestra.
“I remember coming into the room and there were a lot of girls and boys, and I was nervous,” Álvarez says in a short film about the orchestra featured on its website. “And it was interesting, because I just came with the instruments, and I said, ‘Ok guys, we’re going to have a concert in two weeks.’ And I remember that all of them were surprised. I think they thought I was crazy.”
Many of the Dream Orchestra’s members had never played an instrument before they joined. They came from different countries. They didn’t speak the same languages.
But they shared one major thing in common: They were immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees searching for a new home.
And Álvarez was ready to help them find one.
Teaching older students required a different approach
Mostafa Kazemi lights up when he recalls the day he met Álvarez in 2016.
“Which instrument do you play?” the conductor asked him.
“I can’t play,” Kazemi replied.
Álvarez’s response was confident and unflinching: “Yes, you can. Come and pick which one you want.”
Kazemi, originally from Afghanistan, was 16 years old at the time. He’d been in Sweden for a matter of months. No one had talked to him like this before.
So a few weeks after the Dream Orchestra began, Kazemi became one of its first members. He picked the cello, an instrument one of his friends was playing.
We are not case numbers. We are not names on a list. We are people who bring different knowledge, experience and opportunity — and a lot of dreams.
Ron Davis Álvarez, Dream Orchestra founder and artistic director
The small ensemble rehearsed on Fridays and Saturdays. Those were Álvarez’s days off, and also a time when he knew it was important to keep young people occupied and off the streets.
At first, teaching the group wasn’t easy, Álvarez recalls. He was used to instructing younger Spanish-speaking students who came from similar backgrounds. This would require a different approach.
Álvarez spoke English, and some of the other members of the Dream Orchestra did, too. But still, misunderstandings were frequent, even comical at times.
Body language was key to overcoming those obstacles. So was finding a way to connect more deeply with each person – to learn what music they liked and where they came from and who they were.
Mostafa Kazemi, center, smiles during a cello section rehearsal. He'd never played an instrument before joining the Dream Orchestra.
Courtesy Dream Orchestra
Another key part of Álvarez’s approach with these older students: giving them the confidence to make mistakes.
“I tried to build confidence – first the confidence of the sound. That’s number one. Try to build big sound. Because the big sound is easy for me to start to (adjust), like a DJ. But it’s too difficult if it’s too little sound,” he says. “I prefer that you make a mistake. … It doesn’t matter if it’s the right note or not.”
The confidence comes first. Then the right notes follow as motor skills are sharpened – something that Álvarez says simply takes more time with older students.
Álvarez’s students say his passion inspired them to push themselves.
“Ron was full of energy all the time,” Kazemi says. “And that made us want to do more and more and more. We were practicing at home. I even brought some more students. I told my friends. … And everyone told their friends, and everyone came to orchestra.”
Before long, the group that started with 13 students was growing.
Now, eight years later, the Dream Orchestra has more than 400 members from nearly 20 countries who speak around 20 languages between them. There are multiple ensembles within the organization for students of different ages living in different locations in and around Gothenburg, and playing at different levels. Some members are children of immigrants. Swedish nationals whose families have lived in the country for generations have joined, too. And some parents of the young people in the orchestra are also now in its ranks.
Other teachers have joined Álvarez on staff. And he’s no longer directing El Sistema Sweden. Álvarez works for the Gothenburg Symphony as the artistic director of a summer music program. And he spends as much time as he can with the Dream Orchestra every week.
Refugees and asylum seekers remain the core of the group, Álvarez says, “but it’s an orchestra for everyone.”
This student was skeptical about joining. Then he saw a performance
Mushtaq Khorsand says he had no intention of joining the Dream Orchestra when he first heard about it from a friend at school. He knew enough about classical music to know it wasn’t for him.
“I have seen that before, people playing in a classical music orchestra. They are usually sad. They look like they don’t want to play,” Khorsand recalls thinking. “I’m a hip-hop guy, you know. We jump.”
But watching just one performance of the Dream Orchestra changed his mind. He saw his friends from school sitting beside strangers and smiling as they played. And he asked Álvarez if he could join.
Asking that question, he says, changed his life.
So many times since he’d left Afghanistan, Khorsand felt like people had demeaned and underestimated him. He could tell that Álvarez believed in him before he’d even played a note.
Khorsand started out playing the French horn after Álvarez suggested it. He switched to the flute when that instrument became available, preferring its softer tone.
Mushtaq Khorsand asked to join the Dream Orchestra after seeing how joyful his friends were during a performance. He's kept performing with the group even as his life as gotten busier. "I cannot imagine being without them," he says.
Courtesy Rey Trombetta/Dream Orchestra
He says the community he found in the orchestra helped him through dark times in his life – including an initial negative decision in his immigration case that he feared might force him to leave Sweden. Whenever he and other members of the orchestra struggled, Khorsand says, Álvarez was always willing to listen and did what he could to help.
“That was really important for me, because when I came here, I had a really rough time. … I wasn’t allowed to work. I didn’t have money. So if I wasn’t part of Dream Orchestra and (hadn’t) met Ron, I don’t where I would be,” he says.
Now he’s 25 and a job coach helping other refugees find work in Sweden. He has a young son who loves listening to him play the flute. He’s released a solo Dari-language hip-hop album.
And he’s embraced other kinds of music, too. In videos of rehearsals and performances on the Dream Orchestra’s YouTube channel, Khorsand can be seen playing, singing and dancing with other members of the group – and he’s smiling.
Someday, he says he hopes to follow in Álvarez’s footsteps and become a music teacher.
Even as his life has gotten busier, he makes a point of playing his flute with the group every weekend.
“It’s the only thing I do for myself,” he says. “I cannot imagine being without them.”
Merengue para el primer dedo, by Carlos Medrano y Ritmos Ciganos Carlos Garcia.
Training professional musicians isn’t the goal
The Dream Orchestra’s story isn’t a tale of a ragtag group rising to the top ranks of the classical music world. And Álvarez says it’s not supposed to be.
Some members have gone on to study music after their time in the orchestra. And Álvarez says that excites him. But his dreams for the orchestra’s members are much bigger than that. Often, he feels the proudest when he hears about them helping others.
“Our goal is that they can find their way in this society, with empathy, values and respect,” he says. “I don’t want everyone to become a musician. I want them to become the best whatever they can be.”
At a time when migrants are a growing portion of the world’s population and the number of people forced to flee their homes has reached a record high, Álvarez knows the orchestra and its members have a vitally important message.
“We are not case numbers,” he says. “We are not names on a list. We are people who bring different knowledge, experience and opportunity – and a lot of dreams.”
Immigration to Sweden peaked in 2016, but since then it’s remained at a high level compared to past eras, according to government statistics. And Swedish officials have announced a series of stricter immigration policies in recent years, arguing that previous levels were unsustainable and contributed to crime.
Migrants seeking asylum pack a stairway at a train station in Malmo, Sweden, in November 2015. At the time, the country was known for having some of Europe's most welcoming immigration policies. Swedish officials have announced a series of stricter policies in recent years.
Johan Nilsson/AFP/Getty Images
But Álvarez sees the arrival of immigrants as an opportunity, not a threat. Conducting the Dream Orchestra over the years had opened his eyes to so many things. And on a December morning, as about 20 musicians from the group take the stage at one of the most important performances in the young orchestra’s history, he’s hoping others will see what he does, too.
Nobel laureates and locals are watching inside the Gothenburg auditorium. A national audience is tuning in on Swedish television and global viewers are watching a YouTube livestream. In a day-long Nobel conference on the future of migration, the Dream Orchestra is a featured act.
The lights dim as they get ready to play their first piece: a Swedish folk song whose meaning is all too familiar for these musicians.
Its title: “Vem kan segla förutan vind?” Who can sail without the wind? Its final line, as summarized by Álvarez to the crowd: “You can sail without many tools, but you cannot sail without crying when you say goodbye to your friends.”
Álvarez knows how hard it is to leave home behind and find your footing in a new place. He’s living thousands of miles away from many members of his own family, too.
The maestro stands center stage and raises his baton in the air.
Sitting in the Nobel spotlight, one of the group’s newest members speaks out
One of the orchestra’s newer members plays the folk song’s melody.
Tymofii Slakva, who goes by Tim, is a 16-year-old pianist who was forced to flee Ukraine with his family after Russian’s invasion.
The song starts with a few solemn notes, with accompanying strings playing softly in the background. Before long, the other instruments are silent, and it’s only Slakva’s hands summersaulting across the keyboard, transforming the mournful melody into a bold and triumphant solo.
Slakva has been playing piano since he was a toddler. And he told CNN in a recent interview that the Dream Orchestra has given him the sense of connection and community he needed in his new home.
During weekend rehearsals, the Swedish tradition known as fika – a beloved coffee and pastry break that’s a time to convene with friends and family – is as much a part of the orchestra as any instrument. And Slakva says he looks forward to it every week.
“We take foods, gather together and speak about life,” Slakva says. “I really like spending time with them.”
Slakva, whose father is a pianist, too, also loves performing. He’s happy the orchestra brought him to this stage. But not only because of the music he’s playing. In a panel discussion afterward, Slakva has a chance to share his perspective on what life is like for immigrants in Sweden.
At a Nobel event in Gothenburg, Sweden, in December, Dream Orchestra members Azra Avci (center) and Tymofii Slakva (right) share the stage with University of Gothenburg Associate Professor of Political Science Andrea Spehar.
Courtesy Anna Svanberg/Nobel Prize Outreach
He tells the crowd about something that’s been weighing on him. While Ukrainians are grateful they’ve been given temporary permission to stay in the country, he says, they still don’t have access to the government-issued personal identity numbers that give other residents of Sweden – including some members of the Dream Orchestra from other countries – more financial and employment opportunities. He hopes that will change.
“There are really many limits,” he tells the crowd. Without a personal number in Sweden, he says, “there is no future.”
Álvarez, too, has a chance to share his perspective. As he sees it, politicians and world leaders could learn a lot from this music ensemble.
“I see the orchestra like society,” he says. “When you are in an orchestra, you need to learn how to hear each other, how to listen to each other, compassion, how to empathize.”
Deportations and other obstacles have shaped the group in unexpected ways
That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges over the years.
Some students at first struggled with taking direction from female conductors and teachers, Álvarez says, and tensions have boiled over at times between members of the orchestra whose home countries have a history of conflict with each other.
Some conductors might direct their orchestras simply to play on and ignore these difficulties. Álvarez says he addresses them directly. He wants the orchestra not only to be a safe space, but a place where its members can grow and learn to live together.
“We are all people that need to respect each other. It’s difficult because you cannot erase this history, but you can rewrite the future,” he says.
It’s the only thing I do for myself. I cannot imagine being without them.
Mushtaq Khorsand, a flutist in the Dream Orchestra, on what the group has meant to him
But for Álvarez, the past is always present, too.
As he conducts, he thinks not only of the musicians in front of him, but of the ones who used to be there and aren’t anymore. Beginning the orchestra was a beautiful experience, Álvarez says, but he never expected how hard it would be when its members started to learn the results of their immigration cases.
Since the orchestra’s founding, he estimates more than 10 of its members have been deported – each one, he says, leaving a hole that can never be filled.
Fear that he’d lose members of the orchestra haunted him. And Álvarez says it changed his perspective.
He was already known as a passionate and energetic teacher. But he started to push himself even harder.
“I need to give so much,” he says, “because I cannot control whether they can stay or not. But I can control whether to give them some tools that they can take with them if they have to leave.”
He lost his asylum case and left Sweden. But the orchestra is still part of him
After losing multiple appeals in his asylum case, Mostafa Kazemi left Sweden several years ago before authorities could deport him back to Afghanistan.
Eight years after becoming one of the first members of the Dream Orchestra, Kazemi now lives in France, where he was granted asylum. He no longer has a cello or the time to play one. Speaking to CNN on Zoom from his new home, he says his work as a restaurant cashier and other efforts to find stability there are all-consuming.
But Kazemi says he still carries the orchestra with him, and he always will. The experience, he says, changed the way he saw himself and the world around him.
The Dream Orchestra performs at a church in Gothenburg. Álvarez says holding frequent concerts and setting goals has helped inspire his students.
Courtesy Emelie Asplund/Dream Orchestra
“I understood the meaning of life because I was so loved and cared for. When it was my birthday, they were making cakes for me. … Even now, every time when I contact Ron, he tells me, ‘we always have an open door for you,’” Kazemi says.
On a recent trip to visit Sweden, Kazemi visited Álvarez and sat in on a Dream Orchestra rehearsal.
“It was like I had left yesterday. I came to the same door. … Everything was the same, except there were more children,” he says. “I was just feeling home.”
Worry about finances keeps him up at night. But he hasn’t lost hope
It pains Álvarez to think of Kazemi in France without a cello. He hopes someday to be able to send him one — and to find a way to help pay for a new teacher for Kazemi, too.
But right now, money is tight.
After January, Álvarez says he’s not sure where most of the orchestra’s funding will come from. He says an organization in the United Kingdom has pledged to pay 20% of their expenses, but Álvarez is still searching for more support.
In the past, family foundations have provided crucial funding that kept the orchestra afloat and helped it grow. But Álvarez says raising money has gotten harder over the years. Arts funding that was cut during the pandemic hasn’t bounced back, he says. And a harsher political climate towards migrants and refugees in Sweden and elsewhere hasn’t made matters any easier.
The Dream Orchestra received a standing ovation at the recent Nobel performance, and energizing words of encouragement from laureates and other audience members. But so far, Álvarez says, the orchestra hasn’t seen the boost in donations it needs.
Worrying about the orchestra’s finances keeps him up at night. But he hasn’t lost hope.
His experience conducting the Dream Orchestra has made his belief in people even stronger.
He knows how far they’ve come together. And he knows there are still so many ways the group can grow.
“Themes for Scheherazade” in arrangement by Richard Meyer,
The Dream Orchestra’s website includes a document detailing its approach. He hopes others will create similar programs. He’s traveled to refugee camps in Lebanon to share what he’s learned. And a group of teachers from Ukraine recently visited and plan to follow the Dream Orchestra’s model to help children displaced by war there.
On social media, Álvarez often shares posts praising the group and highlighting their recent performances.
On his phone, Álvarez still keeps a recording of one of the Dream Orchestra’s first rehearsals.
He’s playing piano and singing the melody. Everyone else is playing out of tune, bows scratching across their instruments’ strings. Many of their faces appear pained as they struggle to find their fingering.
“It sounds horrible,” Álvarez laughs, “but that wasn’t what I was thinking about at the time.”
At that moment, and in so many others, Álvarez was focused on what they were building together.
Like a designer walking into an empty house and envisioning how the rooms would look, all he saw was potential.
It’s what he saw that day on the train station platform, too, and what he hopes will inspire others to reach out in their own ways when they see immigrants and refugees in their communities.
All of us, he says, have so much to give each other.