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At a Christmas concert in Panama, refugees are the guests of honour

Women singing at a Christmas concert

Members of the Panama Philharmonic Orchestra performing Christmas favorites from around Latin American at a Christmas concert dedicated to refugees. © UNHCR/Tito Herrera

Having fled Venezuela, Panama Philharmonic Orchestra director Víctor Mata brings holiday cheer to refugees and asylum seekers.

As the founder and director of the Panama Philharmonic Orchestra, Víctor Mata knows the power of music to soothe spirits and open hearts.


And as a Venezuelan who left his country eight years ago at the start of a crisis that has forced millions of his compatriots to flee rampant inflation, shortages and a breakdown in security and public services, he also knows how difficult the quest to find safety can be.

There would be no better moment, he reasoned, to bring hope and comfort to refugees and asylum seekers in his adopted country, Panama, and help show the value refugees can bring to their new homes, than the Philharmonic´s annual Christmas concert.

“Christmas is a time for coming together, a time to share, a time of hope.”

“Christmas is a time for coming together, a time to share, a time of hope,” said Víctor, 55, who received his musical education as a teenager under Venezuela’s prestigious program of youth orchestras, which turned out such luminaries as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel.

“When you are forced to leave your home, you’re in pain. We’re convinced that this concert can help assuage part of that pain and bring hope that things can get better.”

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Venezuelan-born conductor Víctor Mata directs Panama Philharmonic Orchestra during a Christmas Concert dedicated to refugees and asylum seekers. © UNHCR/Tito Herrera

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Vanessa Rivas, a Venezuelan-born member of the Philharmonic Orchestra, performs at a free Christmas concert honoring refugees and asylum seekers. © UNHCR/Tito Herrera

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Renee Cuijpers, UNHCR´s Deputy Representative for Cuba and Central America, speaking to the audience at the Panama Philharmonic Orchestra’s free Christmas concert honouring refugees and asylum seekers. © UNHCR/Tito Herrera

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Víctor Mata, founder of the Panama Philharmonic Orchestra, on stage ahead of the group’s Christmas concert dedicated to refugees and asylum seekers. © UNHCR/Tito Herrera

Panama has seen a recent surge in the numbers of refugees and is now home to some 19,000 refugees and asylum seekers hailing not only from Venezuela but also from countries including Colombia, Nicaragua, which is beset by political violence, as well as the gang violence-wracked nations of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Víctor is not the only member of the Panama Philharmonic to have fled Venezuela among the ongoing crisis. Bassist Vanessa Rivas, 20, has also found safety and a second chance in the Central American nation after fleeing extorsion and targeted threats back home.

“These types of events brings us togeher and remind us what the real meaning of Christmas is.”

Dozens of refugees and asylum seekers were in the audience at the free concert at Panama City’s Pacific Theater, reveling in the holiday cheer that emanated from the Santa hat-wearing musicians and basking in the familiar glow of traditional Christmas tunes from throughout Central and South America.

For spectator Heily Alemán, a 29-year-old mother of two forced to flee political repression in her native Nicaragua, it filled her with a familiar holiday glow.

“These types of events brings us togeher and remind us what the real meaning of Christmas is,” she said. “The concert reminded me of what Christmas is like in my country: the music, the singing, being with the family and feeling close to one another.”

Originally published on UNHCR on 24 December 2019