Vartan Melkonian who was a street child in Lebanon is now a conductor for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra -
Sunset to you and I might mean a time where we can leave the office and go to the pub. 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 shovelling 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.
He said: ”You don't notice that it is scary as that is your life and that is what you do. It is only when you look at it from an intellectual point of view now that it might seem scary of course. You have to make decisions crucial to your existence and that comes naturally."
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 parents.
The father-of-two seeked 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 popular among American sailors.
He said: “It was about dedication and not giving up on the case.”
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 can not 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 fantasises 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."
Having his unique experience, the musician said: "Too many people in the world think 'what is my right rather than what can I give?”
He came to England when he was a young adult and he worked in the north of the country as well as in the East End singing and producing music. He brought up his children in London and in Chenies where he is grateful they could have a different start to life than his own.
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.
The 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 orphan.”
From nurses to social welfare, Vartan feels bitter about the people who complain and turn a blind eye to the good things that the West provides.
“We should be grateful to the nurses in England compared to Lebanon where you die for not having enough money,” he said.
When I asked how similar Buckinghamshire is to Beirut, Vartan laughed and said: “It is very different. The only thing that is the same is that we are all human and we all breath the same air.”
He said: "When I used to see the children coming home from school and saying to me 'What's for dinner?' that is something so alien to me. I am so pleased they are able to do that and not look through the rubbish bins for their next meal.”
When we finish talking in the Amersham cafe, a waitress, who I hadn’t realised was also engrossed in his words, approached the table and thanked Vartan for sharing his tale. I couldn't agree with her more.
Vartan’s daughter, Veronica, has threatened to write a book of her father’s intoxicating life, I do hope this materialises. I, for one, would love a signed copy.
Vartan is a patron of the Consortium for Street Children www.streetchildren.org.