Advocating an orchestra of refugees, Crystal Lake native invited to United Nations summit


Invited to the United Nations in New York City, Sebastian Agignoae of Crystal Lake is on a mission to improve the refugee crisis through music – “a strong ambassador of peace.”

The 23-year-old graduate of Crystal Lake Central High School and Loyola University-Chicago has created the International Orchestra of Refugees. The campaign is designed to provide residencies for musicians who have been displaced forcibly from their homes, Agignoae said.

They might come from different countries and speak different languages, but, he said, “Music is the one language they all have in common.

“I want to give them the opportunity to prosper, not just survive.”

His advocacy of the International Orchestra of Refugees drew the attention of those at the United Nations and an invite to attend the Feb. 23 Global Engagement Summit at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

With more than 1,500 attendees expected, the summit is said to be the largest assembly ever of Americans gathered in support of the UN. It includes sessions on pressing global issues, such as climate change, peace and security, human rights and the refugee crisis.

“The convening takes place at a pivotal moment for the world and the U.S.-UN relationship,” a press release states. “The planet is facing the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II, terrorism and threats from the effects of climate change.

“Meanwhile, American leaders are deliberating the nations’ role at the UN, and several UN priorities are under threat both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.”

Upon initially receiving the invite, Agignoae thought it simply was junk mail. He then received a phone call.

“I, myself, don’t really know how I got here,” he said in a phone call from New York City. “I certainly didn’t think I’d end up at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. I’m just excited to see how things take flight.”

Agignoae has pursued efforts to make his Orchestra of Refugees an official nonprofit group since September of last year, campaigning and recruiting team members. The campaign is inspired by his father, Valentino Agignoae, who escaped from Romania at the height of the Communist regime near the late 1980s. He was granted political asylum in Des Moines, Iowa, before moving to Crystal Lake.

Sebastian didn’t find out his father was a refugee until last year. At the time, as a 2016 graduate of Loyola with a degree in biochemistry and a minor in music – he plays jazz piano – Sebastian was working on developing a multimedia light display for orchestras.

“As soon as I discovered [my dad was a refugee], I took a look at what I was doing and said I have to direct much more of my focus to alleviating one of the world’s largest global crises,” he said.

Thus, the Orchestra of Refugees was born.

Sebastian now works on the campaign full-time, with a goal to visit refugee camps throughout the world to recruit displaced musicians into a full-sized, conventional orchestra.

The hope is those involved in the orchestra bring their “transformative experience and leadership skills” from the Orchestra of Refugees back to their home country “to attempt in alleviating the at-home-crisis,” Sebastian said.

“That will be a prime opportunity to develop such a sustainable program that, long-term, will hopefully look at making migration voluntary and not so much forced,” he said.

Always supportive of his son’s efforts, his father does not know of the role he played.

“To this point, I haven’t relayed the information that this project, this initiative was inspired by [my dad’s] story,” Sebastian said.

His father plays bass guitar, still picking it up from “time to time,” Sebastian said.

Growing up in Crystal Lake, Sebastian said he has realized he was in a “comfort zone” compared to what refugees must endure.

“Refugees, they don’t have a choice but to flee,” he said. “I have a choice in taking action.”