SUCCESS STORY OF AN LEBANESE
FROM STREET CHILD TO ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA CONDUCTOR
By Laura Mowat
An orphan, Vartan Melkonian grew up living rough on the streets of Beirut. He is now a conductor for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and gives talks at the UN on street children.
For street children like Vartan was, it was the most terrifying time of the day, when he had to face the daily tango of reality as a street boy and find shelter for the night.
“People take moments of pleasure by looking at the sunset. For us, for me, it was the worst time of the day, there was nowhere to go. I had to find any alcove to sleep in,” the former street child said.
The musician worked different jobs, such as shoe shining, selling chewing gum and shoveling sand onto lorries. He would earn ten pence a day, which was enough to buy some bread and he was thankful for the fertility of Lebanon as finding food in dustbins was never an issue.
Vartan became a street child when he left an orphanage just outside of Beirut when he was eight-years-old. His parents were Armenian and came to Lebanon as refugees when there was the Armenian Genocide in 1915, which left 1.5 million people dead. Vartan spent his first eight
years in the refugee camp with his parent.
The father-of-two seemed solace in music, he could write music before he wrote words and when he walked the streets of Lebanon, he would walk in tempo rhythm. He gathered other street boys, taught them harmony and they would hum hymns together. They would hum as the solution
to the fact they all spoke different languages. The band of street boys became quite well known in the city and they were particularly among American sailor.
Through a random encounter on the street, a band member from the band Inotorni took interest in the young talent and asked Vartan to join his band. This X-factor like meeting played a big role in giving Vartan a ticket for success; it helped him to afford to buy a property in Beirut when he was 18.
He said: “It was a sensation that one cannot describe easily to have your own place. I had never sat on a chair, I had never been into someone’s house. I didn’t know how to tie shoe laces. If no one tells you these things then you don’t know it at all.”When he was a street child, the conductor would often get shooed on by smart hotels.
When I asked Vartan whether he is surprised about how far he has come, from a boy with nothing to a conductor for one of the most successful orchestras in the world, he said that he always knew his fantasies would become his reality.
His response, which simply demonstrates the underlying optimism he always had, was: “If you want to, you will finish a race, not necessarily first, but you will get there if you aim for it. They
weren’t fantasies that I never thought I could achieve.”Vartan as a spokesman for the United Nations now gives speeches about street children and explains that children on the streets do give back if given the chance. He is a patron for the Consortium of Street Children, which Sir John Major set up when he was the prime minister. He has given speeches in Westminster as well as Colombia where he met the president and called for more to be done to help homeless children. He said: “If we invest in children and give children a chance, you will be saving children like me.”
A few months ago, in his role of patron for the Consortium of Street Children, he gave Prince William a prize at a polo competition.
Vartan, now a father-of-two, who has not stopped smiling warmly at me since we began talking tells me about a time his daughter as a child, when probed what her father did, proudly said: “My daddy is an Armenian Lebanese orphan.”