Eight-year-old Zlata pushes aside a black toy gun and a curly red wig. She’s searching for the perfect prop for the photo booth and settles on sunglasses with red hearts. She’s performing on stage in an hour, but for now she’s focused on playing dress-up in the park with her friend Sofia.
Dipping her sunglasses and striking a pose, Zlata is a refugee from Ukraine. Along with her mother Julia and two sisters, Zlata was forced to flee Odessa as the city was struck by heavy shelling and air strikes.
“My daughters woke up to the sounds of bombs erupting in the sky and our house vibrating,” says Julia. Zlata’s father and grandparents remain in Odessa, along with their chickens.
Now safe in Moldova, Zlata has joined a UNICEF-supported choir and quickly made friends with nine-year-old Sofia. Today is a big performance as the girls will be singing to mark the International Day for Protection of Children.
The concert, entitled Muzica Desenelor Animate (‘Animated Movie Soundtracks’), includes a set list of hits from the Lion King, Frozen, Star Wars, Ghostbusters and classics from Ukraine and Russia
Adriano Marian, conductor and founder of the Moldovan National Youth Orchestra
Adriano Marian, conductor and founder of the Moldovan National Youth Orchestra, wears a sharp black suit and bright white sneakers. Music has been at the centre of his life since age 6 when he first picked up the trumpet. Adriano doesn’t need to hold a conductor’s baton – his energy and passion for music seeps through his hands and the performers have learned to follow his sweeping gestures. Music can have an incredible impact on children’s education and it unites people, says Adriano, struggling to keep his hands still before the concert begins.
On the International Day of Child Protection, communities gather in support of children and families from Ukraine.
“Music is an essential way to bring communities together,” he says. “That’s what we believe at the Youth Orchestra. Wherever there is music, it creates connections between people and brings happiness.”
Zlata and Sofia are restless with excitement as they are called onto the stage. Water bottles are passed around as the clouds only briefly shield the children from the sun; it’s 26 degrees at 5 p.m. and the atmosphere is heating up.
Parents lift their small children onto their shoulders so they can get a better view as the
park quickly swells to a crowd. Parents lounge on bright red beanbags while children hurl themselves onto them. Three siblings dart around the park, pausing briefly as their white balloon breaks free from its stick and is rescued by a stranger.
The choir and orchestra perform to a packed crowd.
Adriano raises his hands, pauses, then opens the show. He guides the strings, brass, and percussion sections through the playlist of Disney hits. An opera singer accompanied by a young performer wows the audience while Zlata and Sofia stand side by side in the chorus, two friends brought together by their joy of music.
“I love music because it’s beautiful,” says Zlata. “It helps me forget all that is sad and gives me a lot of emotions. Moldova is a lovely country and I have many friends. I like it here because everyone respects and helps me.”
Zlata and Sofia stand proudly in the front row of the UNICEF supported choir.
A man in a crisp white shirt waits patiently behind the tower of speakers, his hands clutching sheet music. Veaceslav Redea is the principal conductor of the Symphony Orchestra from Zaporizhzhia, and this evening he is a guest conductor.
“I arrived in Chisinau following the tragic events in Ukraine, which are being watched by the whole world,” says Veaceslav. “My friend Adriano invited me to participate in this concert. Today is a beautiful holiday recognizing the International Day of Child Protection.”
All children must be protected, but tragically, children and families from Ukraine have now faced 100 days of horror. Children just like Zlata have been attacked, have lost loved ones and have been forced to flee. UNICEF is supporting refugee children and ensuring they have the right to an education, health and a social life – because children should be surrounded by the sounds of melodious music, not missiles.
“I think the greatest joy for parents is to see their children happy, to see their smiles,” says Veaceslav. “It’s so important for children to experience the art of music. Many may not become professionals, but it will help them in life and communication. They will be free.”
The concert winds to a close and applause erupts in the park. Zlata and Sofia run off the stage and are swooped up by their proud mothers. “I’m very happy,” says Zlata’s mother. “I will do everything I can to make my daughters happy and ensure they are safe.”
Maha Damaj, UNICEF Moldova Representative
Fittingly, Pharrell Williams’ feel-good song ‘Happy’ blares from the speakers and travels over the park. Maha Damaj, UNICEF Representative for the Republic of Moldova, is at the concert with her young daughter, whose face is painted as a butterfly.
“This is the day when we put everything aside and we celebrate children. We’re here with children from Moldova, children from Ukraine and from around the world,” says Maha. “Ukrainian children have been surrounded by the sounds of shelling, the sounds of silence, of tension and of stress. We’re replacing those sounds with sounds that make them happy.”
As the evening winds to a close and tired children are rushed home to bed, Zlata still longs for her life in Ukraine. “I miss my home, my friends, my school and my beloved teacher,” she says, trying to hold back tears as her friend leans over to give her a hug.
Music unites us.
Innocent children are suffering through ongoing war and displacement - they continue to need help