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From Liberia to the Lowcountry, mayhem to music-making

April 9, 2017 GMT

Ten years ago, when the two boys were 10 and 8 respectively, they left one world and entered another. Before, there was dismay, fear, mischief and terror, along with strong bonds of friendship. After, there was green grass, music lessons, electric power, Legos and safety.

And family. Finally, there was family.

Here’s an episode among Ezekiel’s earliest memories: He was 3 years old. His father and brother said, “We’re going somewhere,” and the next thing he knew he was at an orphanage. “This is where you are going to be living now,” his father told him.

At the Buchanan Mission, Ezekiel cried for a week, uncertain of everything. He spoke only the native language of Grand Bassa county in Liberia. “I didn’t know an ounce of English,” he said. “These were all strange people, a strange place, strange food.” He was in the middle of nowhere, a remote, dusty region of a brutalized West African country. He was there for more than two years.

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Eventually, another boy arrived at the mission, two years younger and lost. John’s mother had dropped him off on the road that ran by the building. It was a well-used thruway on which trucks passed regularly. John stood there, dumbstruck, confused by his abandonment, then sadly meandered in the roadway as a truck rumbled toward him.

A few other boys were nearby. One was watching John, aware of the danger, and he sprung into action. It wasn’t long after Ezekiel pulled the newcomer from the street that another boy was struck by a passing car. This was a perilous place, soon to become much more dangerous.

The two boys immediately became fast friends, Zeke the older protector and a charismatic leader in the orphanage, John the quiet ward. They found a way to get through each day in this remote outpost. Until the brutal second civil war burst in.

Nurturing talent

Lately, Ezekiel has been working on the beautiful violin entr’acte “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera “Thais.” It has a gorgeous soaring melody and requires both technical control and emotional sweep. John has been playing Franz Liszt’s Sonetto 104 del Petrarca, a bold work that references a poem by the great Italian writer Petrarch.

The young men are talented, and serious about their music. Zeke, now 20, is studying with Lee-Chin Siow at the College of Charleston. John, 18, is studying with Irina Pevzner at the Charleston Academy of Music.

They dabbled in music back in Liberia, Zeke especially, who was a pretty good drummer. But it wasn’t until about eight years ago that they took their first deliberate steps into the domain of classical music.

It started at home, in Moncks Corner. Janet and Gene DiMaria were homeschooing their three biological sons, Geno, Dominic and Anthony, and learning a musical instrument was part of the process. They started on piano, an instrument that stuck with Geno; Dominic migrated to guitar and Anthony to violin.

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The older boys helped teach Zeke and John piano. Zeke kind of hated it and embraced violin instead. John took to the keys like a penguin to icy water.

Soon, Zeke moved on to the Suzuki books for violin, then knuckled down a few years later when a family friend and violinist began to teach him privately. In 2011, Zeke went off to string camp, then settled into the private studio of DeAnndra Drewry-Glenn, with whom he studied for four years until enrolling at the College of Charleston.

John got his start at the piano with his brother Geno, then signed up for private lessons with Scott McDowell, who taught the up-and-comer some theory and jazz improvisation. John listened to a lot of music — soundtracks, hymns — and made his own arrangements.

He was getting good, playing some wedding and restaurant gigs, and listening to the music of J.S. Bach. By 2014, he was entering competitions and practicing on nice pianos at Fox Music. Owner Charles Fox suggested he contact Pevzner, one of the area’s best teachers.

Command to shoot

The boys were not really aware of the war, though a Guinea-backed rebel group had been stirring things up in the north of the country since 1999. This was a new round of fighting. The first civil war, which began in 1989, was a bloody, fractious, eight-year-long power shift that overthrew what many considered the illegitimate government of Samuel Doe, who had led a coup d’etat nine years earlier. By 1997, a peace accord was achieved, Doe was executed and Charles Taylor was elected president. About 600,000 people had died as a result of the fighting.

The second civil war fired up just two years later, with rebel forces challenging Taylor and his government. Zeke and John remember the day a rebel general arrived at the orphanage with his troops.

“They lined up the orphans against the wall, pointing guns at us,” Zeke said. It was likely supposed to be a massacre. The firing squad was in position. About 500 terrified children stood along a wall just outside the building. “The general was supposed to give the command to shoot but couldn’t,” Zeke recalled. “He broke down crying.”

Instead, he issued a threat: Get these children out of here now or we will kill them all.

They traipsed through the dust to Daniel Hoover Children’s Village, where they stayed briefly, then on to a U.N. safe house near the capital of Monrovia. They did not eat for days. “I was so hungry I could not even walk,” Zeke said. “I had to crawl down the stairs, I felt really dizzy. I got a handful of rice from one of the matrons and that was enough to bring me back.”

They listened to the tanks rumbling by, shooting in the streets (some from child soldiers recruited by both sides), and U.N. helicopters passing overhead. After a while, they returned to the Children’s Village, where they remained for about two more years.

A natural flair

Pevzner is an accomplished performer and selective teacher, active with Chamber Music Charleston and in charge of the Charleston Academy of Music. She said she is impressed by John’s dedication.

“He wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to practice,” she said. He will continue for hours if uninterrupted. His mother, Janet DiMaria, must stop him so he can turn some attention to academics and other subjects. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

But dedication alone does not make an artist.

“When I see him play — I can’t put it into words — the expression comes from a different world,” Pevzner said. “It’s something I didn’t teach him. He’s one of those people who can be more than a musician. He can tell another kind of story with his music. ... I really think John has that power.”

And besides playing the piano, John makes bold and fascinating paintings, accumulating a portfolio that might come in handy one day.

Lee-Chin, a violin professor at the College of Charleston, said she first got to know about Zeke from Drewry-Glenn, a former student.

“When I first heard Ezekiel, I saw great potential in him,” she said. “His passion for music was palpable. He has a natural flair as a performer, and stands out with his unique musical voice. I was very moved that his parents had given him and his brother the gift of a family and a fine education.”

Lee-Chin wanted to nurture the young man’s talents and recruited him to join the music program at the college.

“He fits in perfectly in my studio, which has a great mix of international and local students,” she said. “He has an outgoing personality and we have a great rapport. He is a joy to teach. Besides playing the violin, he is also a talented cook.”

Double adoption

Gene and Janet DiMaria spent years in Arizona before they moved to the Lowcountry in 2005 when Gene DiMaria landed a new job as firearms and safety officer with the Probation and Pre-Trial Services Office of the U.S. Courts, located on the old Navy base.

The couple had three sons and experience as foster parents. They had long wanted to adopt, Janet DiMaria said. By 2005, when they got serious about adoption, Liberia had become a focal point, partly because of the terrible toll of two civil wars and the many orphans that resulted.

It was no easy task. The bureaucracy was thick. Liberian authorities threw up obstacles, fearful of those who sought to exploit the situation. Human trafficking was a genuine concern. The adoption process was supposed to take six to nine months. It took two years.

With support from their three boys, the couple had plans to adopt a single child in Liberia. Geno chimed in: Maybe bringing back just one boy would make it tough for him to adjust. The family thought about it. Then, that same night, they received an email from the adoption agency informing them that the boy they were to pick up, Ezekiel, had a best friend. They were practically attached at the hip.

Suddenly, plans changed.

At Daniel Hoover Children’s Village, the orphans were increasingly aware of the white visitors (they were always white) who occasionally stopped by to take one of the boys away. “We had heard about adoptions before,” John said. But they were naturally skeptical. Sometimes they would get word that an adoption was imminent then experience a delay or change. The authorities would announce adoptions only on the day children were scheduled to be picked up.

One day, Zeke, and a few others went to the market. On the way back the group ran into a kid from the mission who told him, “White people are here, you’re going to be adopted.” Zeke didn’t believe the boy. But it was true. John was eating lunch (he never missed a meal); Zeke returned too late to finish his food or to say a proper farewell to all his friends. He and John were whisked away.

“I remember being really, really sad; I was leaving all my friends,” he said. “When I got in the car, sadness started building up and building up.”

It was not a joyful moment but instead another profound and unsettling change, another trauma. What was happening? Where were they going?

Across continents

The situation was very complicated. The DiMarias relied on a friend, Paige, who also was adopting two children in Liberia. Paige gathered all the young adoptees and left Liberia on a Tuesday night, but not without running into trouble. She paid extortion money to Nigerian rebels in Senegal who delayed the group’s arrival at the international airport. They finally flew to Belgium, where the boys saw their first snowfall, then to Chicago, arriving Friday morning. The DiMarias assisted with logistics and helped pay for the flights.

Ezekiel snagged a seat in first class where he was served some strange cold, creamy, sweet substance that he didn’t like and where he watched the movie “Blood Diamond.”

In Chicago, they were transferred from Paige to the DiMarias. Another trauma. In a short time, the boys had grown close to their reassuring escort, and the airport transition, the latest in a string of tumultuous developments, provoked tears.

In Moncks Corner, the mysteries of a foreign land slowly dissolved. “We had heard stories about coming to America,” John said. “That they put you in a freezer and you turn white. We thought that Spider-Man was real, that ‘The Matrix’ was real. We heard that all is free in America.”

No, all is not free in America, Gene and Janet told the two boys. One must earn a living, pay for everything. But then they’d go to the doctor and get free candy (then sell it back to members of the family). They’d get gifts from friends and neighbors. Eventually they caught on though, said Gene DiMaria.

When they arrived in the Lowcountry, they were ill and underweight, depressed, anxious. Zeke weighed 48 pounds, John 46. They struggled with malaria and ringworm. The family went through hundreds of washcloths and paper towels. Nothing could be reused. Clothing and bedding had to be washed constantly. They were tired all the time. It took a couple of months for them to gain their footing.

Their presence also was unsettling at first to their older brothers. Reality has a way of rolling roughshod over the imagination. This was not exactly like what they had expected. “These guys required so much care and focus, I felt like I was treading water,” Dominic recalled.

John and Zeke were afraid of the dachshund, which had a tendency to nip at people. John, who didn’t speak clearly, would succumb to tantrums that initially required Zeke to act as interpreter. “He’s mad,” Zeke would explain.

They had to learn all the basic things — about privacy and ownership and responsibility, about the cost of things such as electricity, about vacuum cleaners, about closing the bathroom door and flushing the toilet paper.

And then there were the terrifying nightmares that troubled both boys and tended to come in waves. They only subsided after some intensive praying among family and friends, though both continue to experience bad dreams occasionally.

Getting up to speed

The DiMarias were not entirely surprised by all this. “We did the research ahead of time,” Gene DiMaria said. “We knew things would get broken.”

The boys would spend hours constructing complex Lego structures, replete with small lights they powered with built-in batteries. They created a playhouse from cardboard, sticks and twine, meticulously sewing it all together.

“They were the most patient young men I’ve ever seen,” Gene DiMaria said.

Little by little, they gained their health, put on weight, got to know their new extended family, grew accustomed to the way things worked in the U.S. and began to pursue their artistic interests. They were quickly embraced by their older brothers, all of whom became filmmakers.

Today, John is thinking about college, painting pictures and playing pieces on the piano that challenge both his technique and his emotional investment. Ezekiel is at the College of Charleston, studying hard and practicing violin. Sometimes they perform together.

Zeke is adjusting to college. To prepare for it, he enrolled in SPECTRA (Speedy Consolidation and Transition Program), a summer curriculum mostly populated by African Americans. When classmates found out Zeke was adopted by a white couple, they accused him of not being truly black, and Zeke, a native African, felt he had to defend himself. The skepticism among his peers soon faded.

This weekend, the family celebrated the 10th anniversary of the boys’ arrival. It’s been an adventure, with more adventure to come.

The ringworm is long gone. The nightmares are infrequent. The vacuum cleaner is a familiar object now.

Zeke is making the violin sing. John is bringing the piano to life. Their future is filled with promise.