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An immigrant Miami doctor and a Canadian musician join to help Syrian refugees

The Sultans of String play a benefit for Syrian refugees on Thursday; leader Chris McKhool is second from the left.
The Sultans of String play a benefit for Syrian refugees on Thursday; leader Chris McKhool is second from the left.

A Syrian-born Miami doctor and a Canadian musician with roots in the Middle East have teamed up to present a benefit to help refugees from the war in Syria.

For Dr. Hadi Yaziji, producing Thursday’s concert at the Banyan Bowl in Pinecrest Gardens is a way to bypass bureaucracy and politics to help victims of the violence that has ravaged his native country. For Chris McKhool, leader of Canada’s popular, award-winning fusion group Sultans of String, playing the Miami show is not only a way to help a humanitarian cause, but to pay tribute to the contributions that immigrants have made to his band and his country.

“I am just a citizen, but I am passionate,” says Yaziji, an American citizen who came to the United States from Damascus 27 years ago. “I want to channel my energy to help the cause and hopefully raise awareness. ... I am doing this on a very small scale, but I’m not the only one. Thousands of people across the world are doing this.”

McKhool, a violinist whose band includes a percussionist from Cuba and a guest sitar player from Pakistan, both of whom emigrated to Canada seeking political and religious freedom, is passionate about the artistic and human bonds that transcend borders.

“One unifying thing about this band is we honor where people come from,” McKhool says. “The world is a very small place, and we’re all very interconnected.”

Proceeds from the show will go to the Outreach Foundation, a program run by the U.S. Presbyterian Church that does humanitarian work through churches in Syria. Yaziji is paying for all costs himself, including travel expenses for the Sultans. They are forgoing their usual performance fee.

The two men met last winter when Yaziji approached McKhool after a Sultans’ show at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. The doctor then brought his teenage son, an aspiring drummer, to another concert in the Keys, where Yaziji asked the violinist if he’d consider doing a benefit concert.

Both men’s lives have been shaped by the crosscurrents of religious tension and immigration.

Yaziji grew up in a Christian family in Damascus and came to the United States at age 23, after medical school. His mother and three of his four siblings still live in Syria; a brother fled Homs, the site of a protracted battle between government and rebel forces, for Algeria. Yaziji’s Broward-raised wife is Cuban American; they met in graduate school in 1999 and moved to Miami in 2004, where they now run a pathology lab. They also have a daughter, 13, who sings at a Miami arts school.

Yaziji sees the peaceful kind of life that he had growing up in Syria, where he says he had Muslim and Jewish friends, disappearing. A Dutch Jesuit priest in Homs who was a close friend was killed in the fighting. “It was as normal a life as could be anywhere in the world,” he says. “To see that taken away from us and reducing the majority of the country to rubble. ... it’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

He is frustrated and angered by the way he believes politicians use the crisis to advance their own agendas. He is suspicious of international pressure for regime change in Syria, as well as of rebel forces he says are filled with foreigners. Ultimately, he says, civilians are the ones who suffer.

“When a politician like President-elect [Donald] Trump talks of refugees he finds one or two stories that are true of refugees who are terrorists and generalizes this to millions of people,” Yaziji says. “That is not fair.”

Although he calls himself an agnostic, Yaziji chose the Presbyterian group, which he says works with volunteers and long-established Syrian churches, to avoid the red tape and administrative costs of international aid groups. “I want every penny to be spent on people there,” he says. He started a website, Art4Peace.net, to promote the concert and other artistic projects for refugees.

McKhool’s sympathies grew out of his immigrant family’s roots. His mother, who is Egyptian, Lebanese and Austrian, is from a Christian family that emigrated to Canada from Egypt as tensions grew for non-Muslims there. His father is the son of Lebanese immigrants, and his grandfather came to Canada as a stowaway. When McKhool and his father visited the family’s ancestral village in Lebanon, they quickly discovered cousins and the home where the family had once lived.

The Sultans, who’ve won numerous awards and collaborated with symphony orchestras and Irish folk legends The Chieftans, play a mix of Celtic, Middle Eastern, Latin, flamenco and other genres. Their latest album, “Subcontinental Drift,” includes Pakistani sitar player Anwar Khurshid, who was forbidden to play music in public by the repressive religious rules in his native village. One day in rehearsal McKhool noticed that Khurshid was playing what sounded like an Irish fiddle tune on his sitar; Khurshid said it was a traditional tune in his village. They figured out that British colonialists must have brought the song, “Rakes of Mallow,” to what was then part of India; a video of the song is on their YouTube channel.

“We speak about music being an international language, and in this case it was really true,” McKhool says. He’s proud of how Canada has taken in more than 35,000 Syrian refugees, and the band, based in the diverse city of Toronto, has raised funds to sponsor a Syrian family. When Yaziji asked them to play the benefit, McKhool didn’t hesitate.

“If in some small way we can give some of the displaced people of Syria some hope that we’re there for them and stand in solidarity for them, that’s not political, it’s human,” McKhool says. “It’s human to say we’re aware of your suffering and we want to help.”

If you go

What: Syrian refugee benefit concert with the Sultans of String

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: Banyan Bowl at Pinecrest Gardens, 11000 Red Rd., Pinecrest

Info: $35, or $65 VIP at Art4Peace.net

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