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The day the music lived

Rescue and resettlement of ANIM a global, local effort

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The Feb. 12, 2013, concert featuring musicians from the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and the Scarsdale High School orchestra at Carnegie Hall may have been a one-off show, but its impact continues to be felt almost a decade later.

Beyond the musical collaboration and celebration, some students, faculty and parents from both schools created everlasting bonds that helped lead to one of the most prolific and meaningful rescue and resettlement efforts from Afghanistan last fall, as 272 musicians, family members and faculty from ANIM were airlifted to Qatar en route to reuniting and resettling together in Portugal to reopen the school after the Taliban took over Kabul Aug. 15, endangering not only the future of the school, but the lives of everyone involved with it.

Locally, it all started with Scarsdale High School teacher Amédée Williams setting up the connection with ANIM that led to a lasting friendship between the Rosenthal/Szanto family from Scarsdale and ANIM piano student Elham Fanous after he attended a dinner party at their house, and mom Lesley Rosenthal’s crucial partnership with tour media relations specialist Jessica Lustig and ANIM founder Dr. Ahmad Naser Sarmast to found Friends of ANIM in the U.S. to support the school in 2016. The mission of Friends of ANIM, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is to support the efforts of the school to assure musical rights, transform lives through music, revive and preserve Afghan music, train future music educators, and lead cultural diplomacy between Afghanistan and the international community.

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One of the ANIM groups ready to be free.

“The school had gained a lot of notoriety and has in fact become a symbol of advancement and progress, a positive face of the future of Afghanistan,” said Rosenthal, who previously worked as general counsel for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and now works as COO for The Juilliard School. “So much of what you see in the press is about a war-torn nation, civil strife, violence and so forth, so these kids in the school are just a whole other perspective on the country. Because of that notoriety, because of that symbolism, they were among the first targets when the Taliban advanced again, first in the provinces and ultimately to take Kabul and take over the country over the summer, culminating on Aug. 15 with the complete takeover of the country.”

The three started putting their heads together on Aug. 13, 2021, and used every single international contact they had — as did writers, academics, diplomats, politicians and philanthropists around the world — to save the school.

“We came up with an 11-point plan, but ultimately it became obvious the only way to do this would be to airlift the school en masse,” Rosenthal said. “And that was a tall order.”

Most solutions involved splitting up the members of the school community, but Sarmast was “absolutely steadfast in his determination” to keep the school intact, Rosenthal said. He taught the kids to work together in an ensemble and that was a tradition he wasn’t going to let the Taliban destroy.

Portugal was the only country to step up and agree to take the entire school to resettle within a reasonable distance of one another and five separate airlifts from Oct. 2 to Nov. 16 of last year took ANIM’s convoy to Qatar and later Portugal. The “global round-the-clock effort” was a success thanks to Rosenthal and others.

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Marzia Anwari, Shogufa Sufi, Lesley Rosenthal, Amanullah Noori and Murtaza Mahammmadi in Lisbon in December 2021.

For ANIM this means a total rebuild.

“The Taliban was going door to door to find dissidents and other individuals whom they have targeted for a variety of reasons for what they consider anti-Islamic activity,” Rosenthal said. “They were living in safe houses or living in hiding, sometimes moving from place to place. Some of the kids very tragically either burned or smashed their own instruments so they wouldn’t be found by the Taliban because it would have endangered their families. They burnt their musical scores and discontinued their musical activities.”

The girls in particular were in greater danger. Sarmast would not leave without every single school member and waited for the rescue of the final two girls, who had been returned to their villages to learn weaving, before leaving Doha.

“It was the privilege of a lifetime to be able to help,” Rosenthal said. “I feel like Jessica and I were in the right place at the right time. Dr. Sarmast called upon us as the Taliban was advancing to try to activate our contacts in the media and in high political circles and among philanthropists and among well-placed artists to advocate on behalf of the school community.”

ANIM cannot return home until their homeland resembles the one the students grew up in.

“When you talk to the kids they want nothing more than to return to Afghanistan, to a country that’s free and safe,” Rosenthal said. “They miss their homeland. They stand for cultural rights and freedoms for girls as well as boys. They are hopeful that this phase will be a temporary one.

“In the meantime they are working hard to reach out to the local Portuguese community and to further their knowledge and understanding of Afghan culture in Portugal and to incorporate underprivileged Portuguese kids who would be interested in gaining a music education into their school activities. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to organize a U.S. tour perhaps in 2023 so there can be a return engagement as well as a resumption of their touring and performance schedules around the world.”

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ANIM gets ready for a flight to freedom.

The mission of ANIM is:

  • · Ensure the musical rights of Afghan people
  • · Transforming lives and communities through music education 
  • · Promoting gender equality and empowering girls
  • · Promote musical diversity and healing of the nation through music
  • · Community outreach and social impact
  • · Embracing cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.

Afghanistan was a country with no music from 1996-2001 when the Taliban were in control, and Sarmast spent four years after returning from exile to create ANIM, which launched June 20, 2010. He offered academics and Afghan and Western classical music as a cultural right for boys and girls of all socio-economic situations. With global support, ANIM became a phenomenon and was a popular draw when on tour. At the request of the girls at the school, an all-female orchestra called Zohra was formed and led by a female conductor.

ANIM’s 2013 tour included shows at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Carnegie Hall in New York City and the New England Conservatory near Boston. The sold-out Carnegie Hall show was “rollicking” with people dancing in the aisles during the “joyful” celebration,” according to Rosenthal.

Kathy de la Garza’s son Alejandro was one of the Scarsdale musicians, and the collaboration left a lasting impression on her.

“The talent and the passion and the energy the students who we met will never leave me,” she said. “I assume the students who are in Portugal now are just like all of our kids. Just a loss of that school would have been tragic and the loss of its mission. The opportunity the school provided for young women was unique and really very special, too.”

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Dinner at the Moseley house in 2013.

Scarsdale residents Rachel and Harry Moseley hosted one of the dinners because their son Sammy was in the orchestra and have felt connected to Afghanistan ever since.

“It made everything I’ve ever read about Afghanistan ever since then in the news so much more personal,” Rachel Moseley said. “It gives you a different perspective. Before it was just a faraway country.”

Lesley and Ted Rosenthal moved to Scarsdale in 2002 and their sons Aron Szanto, Class of 2014, and David Szanto, Class of 2016, both chose to play cello as third graders at Quaker Ridge Elementary School. “We were really drawn here because of the public schools in general, but we were really thrilled to find a very vibrant public school music program there,” Lesley said. “Scarsdale is such a very special community. I am thrilled that Amédée and the administrators at the school were willing to participate in this program and provide such an incredible opportunity for all of our kids and myself to get involved with this worthwhile cause.”

The entire chain of events makes you wonder, “What if ANIM hadn’t come to Scarsdale and made those connections in 2013?” and some of those stories are below.

“I don’t even want to think about what would have happened, honestly,” Lesley Rosenthal said. “I’m not sure that the school would still exist and I’m not sure that Afghan music would exist in the future.”

The conductor

Amédée Williams saw an article in The New York Times saying ANIM conductor William Harvey had reached a deal to play at Carnegie Hall and was looking for ways to raise money and partner with a local orchestra. Williams got on the phone, and many conversations and details ironed out later, life was about to change. Williams, who began teaching in 2007, was used to touring the world with Scarsdale’s orchestra and understands the costs and the benefits of traveling, but this put him on the other side of the equation.

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William Harvey, Amédée Williams and Dr. Sarmast at Carnegie Hall.

Williams said he could raise some money, but what he could really do was put the group up in his students’ houses, thus saving on hotels and meals. The State Department ended up getting involved and helping cover those costs, worried that if the group split up that some of the Afghanis might try to defect, which wasn’t an unrealistic fear as it happened in other countries.

In the end, everything went as planned except for the homestays and the two orchestras made beautiful music on and off the stage.

“When we go on tour we always combine with another school and we’re hosted by somebody,” Williams said. “It makes the tour really exciting because they get to know the kids in the country where we’re going. I thought it would be cool to host instead of always being the guest. And I thought it would be really cool to host the Afghans.”

Williams did have some trepidation about his students potentially “feeling badly” for their Afghani counterparts, but he told them that the ANIM students all have bright futures. “You don’t have to be from Scarsdale to do well — you just have to be driven,” Williams said. “The Afghan kids coming really opened up the door to the possibilities that they could have and I think it made our students realize something about themselves.”

Williams wanted to introduce Scarsdale to the ANIM community in advance of their trip to the U.S., so he decided to livestream his orchestra performing to Kabul. As it turned out the best time to do that was at midnight, so that’s what he did. “This was back when I was having a little more crazy ideas than I do now,” he said.

Hosting ANIM did spark Williams to find a nontraditional place to take his students to and in 2016 he brought his orchestra to Cuba, which was a far cry from the experience his students normally had in places like Germany and Italy. “We went just at the right moment when [President] Obama opened things up,” Williams said.

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Students getting ready for the big show at Carnegie Hall in 2013.

Williams knew how much help Lesley Rosenthal had been for the Fanous family and wasn’t surprised to learn she helped “quarterback” ANIM’s rescue from Taliban rule. “There’s no question Lesley played a huge role and without them coming that connection would not have been made,” Williams said. “And I think really it was Elham going to that dinner party that did it.”

Though Williams hopes to get back on the road as soon as possible after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, he isn’t sure he’ll ever be able to outdo the once-in-a-lifetime ANIM experience that still resonates today.

“The Afghan experience is probably the highlight of stuff I’ve done at Scarsdale High School really,” Williams said. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better than that.”

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Dave Berry prepares for a midnight livestream from Scarsdale to Kabul in 2013.

The prodigy

Elham Fanous was born in Afghanistan in 1997, a year after the Taliban took over his country. He was 4 when U.S. and Allied Forces drove the Taliban out of power in late 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. He remembers when his father, a well-known singer, wanted to practice music the family would close the doors, shut the windows, close the curtains and do their best to soundproof their home. The presence of outside troops reopened the door — literally and figuratively — for a resurgence of Afghani arts of all kinds.

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Elham Fanous enters the Rosenthal house in Scarsdale for the first time.

That year, Fanous started accompanying his dad on the tabla, a type of drum set. “I started to love music because of him,” Fanous said. “He’s one of my inspirations in music, in my career and my life in general.”

At age 10, Fanous’ father encouraged him to try a Western classical instrument such as violin or piano. After watching some videos online, Fanous was hooked on piano. Though he didn’t have his own piano for his first three years and didn’t have a teacher to begin with either, he joined ANIM and enjoyed the fruits of Sarmast’s labor. Traveling to the United States, particularly Scarsdale, despite the language barrier, was “life-changing” for Fanous, who had previously toured many places in Europe and played many memorable venues.

“We were so passionate, so nothing could stop us,” Fanous said. “We could communicate with music or words, even though it was difficult. My English was kind of a mess. My grammar and pronunciation was not so great. But sometimes you can communicate with body language or get the right word. You try your best and somehow they understand. We couldn’t communicate like the way I’m communicating with you right now. We connected and music was the bridge between us. That shows the power of music. It brings people together.”

The most intentional detail of ANIM’s time in Scarsdale was sending young piano-playing phenom Fanous to the dinner party hosted by the Rosenthals. Fanous remembers entering the Rosenthal house, eating pizza and playing the piano there. Fanous was a prodigy sitting down at the well-known professional pianist Ted Rosenthal’s 9-foot Steinway Grand and kicking off a “huge listening and jam session,” Lesley Rosenthal said.

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Elham Fanous entertains on piano at the Rosenthal home in 2013.

“I know there are a number of folks from Scarsdale who remember Elham in particular,” she added. “He was such a standout talent among the Afghan musicians that he was actually featured as a performer at maybe 15 years old at the time of the Carnegie concert. Just a musician of great passion and skill and poise. Can you imagine being a 15-year-old kid from Afghanistan taking the stage of Carnegie Hall? He’s a pretty memorable figure.”

Fanous started out as a friend and he ended up as a member of the family. Following the December 2014 suicide bombing at an ANIM show in Kabul that severely injured Sarmast, Fanous reached out to the Rosenthals once again. It was time to leave his home for good to escape danger and study at the conservatory level.

“The more frequent and more severe these attacks and threat got, the more clear it became to us we needed to get him out,” Aron Szanto said. “That was a microcosm of the approach my mom took last year where the severity of the attacks, the direness of the situation grew to a point where she realized she had to figure out how to get everyone out … It continues to blow my mind that they were able to accomplish that global effort under the circumstances with such precision.”

In 2015, the Rosenthals helped Fanous make his way to New York. He enrolled in Hunter College’s music program and he finished his master’s last May at Manhattan School of Music with well-deserved scholarships.

“My husband activated some of his contacts in piano teaching at the conservatory level and I’m friendly with the president of Hunter College, so I let her know about this gifted young pianist,” Lesley Rosenthal said. “Aron, who is a whiz at paperwork and computers, assisted Elham in registering to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the paperwork he needed to apply and submit his audition tapes to American universities. David began tutoring Elham in math because he had to pass math competency exams and my mother [Nancy Fadem], who is a retired English teacher, started tutoring Elham in English. Literally all of us just sprang into action.”

Fanous went back home in 2016 after his first year of college. “I felt so homesick,” he said. He hasn’t been back since that trip, at first due to fear he wouldn’t be allowed back into the U.S. during the President Donald Trump administration, and now with the Taliban back in power. Most of his family, including his dad and his siblings, now live in the United States — Lesley Rosenthal helped get his father out last year — and he is hoping his mother will join them from India this year to make them whole again. “That would be one of my dreams come true if my family can get back together,” Fanous said.

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Elham Fanous jams with the Rosenthal/Szanto family in 2013.

Seeing the 20 years of progress his country made disappear overnight was heartbreaking for Fanous. He knew the U.S. withdrawing its troops was going to be “a mess.”

“The country was not and is not ready to be independent and the sad part is they should have been and they should be independent with all the resources and the financial support the United States provided,” he said. “Unfortunately the Afghan government has been very corrupt.”

Fanous knew the first thing to go would be the school, which he owed so much to. The education it provided to boys and girls was visionary.

“Thankfully now you see them in Portugal, which is great and amazing that this happened,” Fanous said. “They’re free to make music and do whatever they want to with their lives. I feel really heartbroken to think about the school, think about the country, think about the people, think about the future of music in Afghanistan. I am always hopeful for the betterment of the country and hopefully music will come back.”

Fanous owes his own music to his family, ANIM and Scarsdale, and ANIM’s path of fleeing danger was the same as many individual alums of the school, including his own. For Rosenthal to not only help Fanous as an individual, but his school, is a debt he will continue to pay forward by helping others.

“Just meeting them was fate, I guess,” he said. “They care about music and they care about humanity.”

The friend

Aron Szanto was a serious cello player and was no stranger to traveling, international experiences and playing at iconic venues. Still, he realized early on that ANIM coming to Scarsdale was a big deal his junior year.

“It seemed like an amazing opportunity, but I remember the whole artistic, cultural and educational community really mobilizing in advance of their arrival,” he said. “With everything going on I knew it was going to be more than a musical event, but a cultural exchange as well.”

In addition to the home dinners and an ice skating party, Szanto remembers “most clearly outside of the musical experience” bringing the Afghani students to classes. Meeting them for the first time it didn’t take long to get over any cultural and language barriers as they taught each other enough to connect quickly and meaningfully.

“It was obvious immediately they wanted to learn and connect, but more importantly as children as we all were just getting to know someone who is different from you and I remember coming home that day and my mom asking how the first big dinner was and I said, ‘It was life-changing,’” Szanto said.

The next day they had their first rehearsal combining the two orchestras and various musical styles and instruments led by conductor Harvey.

“The first thing we did after the concert I remember there being lots of tears, lots of emotional farewells, but we made sure we would be able to stay in touch on Facebook, which everyone had and everyone used at the time,” Szanto said. “A large group of us at Scarsdale stayed in touch with a large group of them at ANIM for years after. We only met them in person for a week or less, but it was the start of many multiyear friendships.”

While Szanto appreciates the “unbelievable opportunity” ANIM now has to thrive “without fear” in Portugal, he knows how devastating it was for them to leave home. “There was no other way for them to carry out their mission in Afghanistan at this point,” he said.

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ANIM and Scarsdale High School musicians play together at the high school.

To think that Williams sparked the chain of events doesn’t actually surprise Szanto, who praised the “amazing educator” for making the initial outreach.

“You never know how big an impact tiny little chances and occurrences can be,” Szanto said. “If they hadn’t come to Scarsdale High School would they have gone to another school and found family or a community that was willing to help out? Maybe not, maybe so, but certainly it speaks to the power of the community and the bond between ANIM and Scarsdale High School and more personally the work my mom and my family was able to do with the school and Elham and his family. It’s incredibly meaningful.”

The humanitarian

Audrey Nadler was a junior when she got to meet and play with the ANIM students. While it didn’t take long for her to get over her nerves in meeting the foreign musicians at a dinner at a hotel in White Plains during a snowstorm and realize she had more in common with them than not, what she didn’t yet know was just how much that would go on to shape her life.

Her freshman year at Hamilton College, which is not far from Utica, a city with a large refugee population, Nadler started a student organization that provided tutoring for refugee families and hosted concerts and other events to bring the communities together.

“It’s not a coincidence,” she said. “That experience really inspired me. Maybe I didn’t know it at the moment, but I’m sure all of my friends in high school remember this, but for months after they left I could basically only talk about the group. They really did make an impact on me and I don’t think it was until college that I realized what that impact was.”

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Scarsdale and ANIM students at a home party in 2013.

Now she is a paralegal at an international law firm and she’s pursuing a career in humanitarian affairs and human rights. When her law firm announced some pro bono projects surrounding the rescue and resettlement of Afghanis in August 2020, Nadler requested that she and the firm dedicate their vast resources to helping ANIM. She reached out to Lesley Rosenthal and got the ball rolling.

“We in the end played a very small role, but at first it seemed like the school was pursuing pathways in the United States by reaching out to members of Congress and we basically advised them on immigration pathways and what their different options were if they were to apply as a group or then as individuals and different options they could pursue as performers or refugees,” Nadler said.

What mattered most was that Nadler was there for ANIM and as long as they ended up safely somewhere she was relieved to think the next generation of musicians was safe. Many of the kids she had met in 2013 and kept in touch with had immigrated to Europe and the United States and she’s been honored to remain a part of their lives, even the student who “crushed” her in Mario Kart at one of the activity dinners prior to the concert at Carnegie Hall.

“We had a lot more in common than I expected with these students from a totally different background,” Nadler said. “At the end of the day they were just teenagers like us.”

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ANIM students make their flight to safety.

That was something Williams recognized. Sure, playing at Carnegie Hall was a nice perk, but there was so much more to the thought process.

“We were really lucky to have him as an orchestra teacher,” Nadler said. “I’ve stayed in touch with him and my youngest brother is actually one of his students right now. He’s always taken great initiative and looked for great opportunities for the students … We’re very lucky that he reached out to them and took initiative.”

The principal

In his first year as principal at Scarsdale High School, the partnership was a wonderful introduction to the community for SHS Principal Ken Bonamo. Though he didn’t have anything to do with the event behind the scenes — he credited administrators Joan Weber and Lynne Shain in the district office for that — he did get to watch the students from both schools interact, build connections and communicate through the shared language of music.

It was a time of continued conflict in the Middle East and Bonamo saw the “universal elements of the human experience that can help us bridge really difficult differences.” Bonamo called it “uplifting” and “emotional.”

“It warms my heart to know that these experiences have an impact beyond just that particular moment in time, but have a lasting impact on students’ lives,” Bonamo said.

To see it still playing out today, Bonamo said, “You never know what the power of human connection can produce.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Scarsdale students are connecting remotely with others around the world and Bonamo looks forward to a day when that contact will once again be face to face. And perhaps the next connection that could last generations will come along.

“It was very encouraging for me to see that Scarsdale as a community was a place that put its relative privilege to good use for the benefit of others, really living out the motto of ‘non sibi,’” Bonamo said. “In my first year to see that we were hosting and making a connection with a musical group from Afghanistan — of all places — really revealed, I think, a lot about the character of Scarsdale.”

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ANIM performs in October.

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