02/21/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/22/2015 05:59 EDT

Syrian refugee a piano prodigy with big dreams

As a refugee from Syria, pianist TambiCimuk could hardly believe it when he stepped onto the stage to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City earlier this month, a feat even more remarkable given he only started playing the piano 18 months before.

Cimuk grew up in Damascus. In 2012, his family fled to Turkey to escape the civil war. They went first to Istanbul and then ended up in the city of Bursa, three hours south.

It was there, in a music store, that his piano-playing abilities were discovered.

"The first lesson was the worst, believe me, because it’s a new thing and there’s two hands and there’s pedals and you have to learn notes," he said, sitting in front of a grand piano at a store in midtown Manhattan.

Having only played the accordion, he took to the piano quickly. Turkish media, teachers and others now describe him as a prodigy.

While his talents began to flourish in Turkey, he found his Syrian papers made it difficult to travel abroad for competitions.

That changed in December when he received a call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After a public campaign for help, Cimuk and his family were given an opportunity few refugees get: Turkish citizenship.

“It happened suddenly, it was like a bomb to us," he said. "We were shocked about it and I’m so proud of it.”

Cimuk was given the ability to travel freely and follow his musical dreams. But with a new passport and new citizenship came new pressure.

“I felt like now I have a big responsibility. I must work hard for that and practise more and more to prove that I can do it.”

Haunting music

He played at Carnegie Hall in early February as one of the winners of the Crescendo International Competition, a music event showcasing talent from around the world. 

He played Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor, a haunting piece he says reflects the difficult environment he left behind in Syria

“When I play it, it’s like miserable music, sad and angry at the same time.”

He hopes his music will inspire teenagers and youth back home in Syria who are growing up in the midst of civil war.

"I came from a difficult environment, a difficult place. I want to play the piano to show the world that there is hope, even if it’s a little bit, there’s hope that the war will end someday," he said.

He’s in New York supported by Rustem Avci, his manager and principal of the private music school in Bursa that Cimuk attends.

His efforts helped connect Cimuk to Tamara Poddubnaya, a pianist and teacher who heads the piano department at the Long Island Conservatory of Music. She first met Cimuk in Istanbul in May 2014.

"What I found the first time was that he’s extremely talented, very musical, he has fantastic technical abilities," she said.

Poddubnaya has been giving him lessons during his visit to New York and hopes to have him return to the U.S. next year to compete in a number of festivals and competitions that she produces.

She says when they're sitting at the piano they don’t discuss politics, just music.

"That’s the thing, music as philosophy has no borders, it doesn’t matter where he’s from, if he’s extremely talented, he should improve … because he has a future."

Cimuk’s goal is to be a concert pianist. He hopes that future includes playing his own show at Carnegie Hall and eventually returning to perform in Damascus one day

"There’s no war that continued forever and someday it’s going to end and everybody will be happy and every child and family will live in peace."