On Pianos for Ukrainian Kids

On New Years Day 2023 our first Piano+1 Program in Europe began with a piano donated to Ukrainian refugee kids in Krakow, Poland. This is the story behind this project.

Being kind takes work

The day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I knew I had to help the Ukrainians. Little did I know it would take months to do so.

The facts in this account are to the best of my recollection, and I may have omitted some details or names. Clearly, my recollections are not perfect, and if so I beg the reader’s indulgence. Also, the opinions are my own.

Shortly after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, my mother emailed me: “My father, your grandfather, Joseph Baker, was born in Ukraine.” I learned of this bond with the Ukrainians even as they were fleeing their country, in a terrible war that a megalomaniac in a suit had arbitrarily unleashed. Around 1908, my grandfather’s family arrived in Massachusetts, seeking better opportunities and to escape the pogroms of the Tsarist regime. Now, over 100 years later, Vladimir Putin’s Russia had ended decades of relative peace in Europe, at the expense of the Ukrainians and many others.

My maternal grandfather Joseph M. Baker, was a Ukrainian immigrant to America. In this photo he is with his wife, Ida (who immigrated from Lithuania), my brother Malik, and my father, Barack Obama Sr., in Mombasa, Kenya c. 1972

Singing on Tables in Kibera

My foundation, based in Hong Kong, develops musical and artistic programs for needy kids around the world. Our Piano+1 program, for example, donates pianos paired with teachers (the +1) for orphans and economically challenged children. Perhaps, I thought, I could make a donation to help some of the displaced children. To date, thousands of schoolkids, many in China, and some in Kenya, have benefited from our programs.

On a trip to Kibera, Africa’s largest ghetto, I remembered visiting a school where an open latrine ran through the single classroom. An eight year old boy bounded onto a table and launched into song to welcome the guests. The image of this smiling, hopeful child on a table above a latrine, before a blackboard sticks in my mind to this day. Kids can forgive, heal and grow, everywhere. Politics aside, it was time to help these kids in Europe.

In early March, while I was in Shenzhen, an American friend sent me a wechat message introducing me to a refugee who wanted to connect with the Ukrainian government. While I could not help him, this was my first contact with a Ukrainian refugee. Around the same time I asked my friend if his refugee friend could locate a centre for Ukrainians. He tried, but that too fell through. I asked a Polish diplomat for help. ‘It’s much better,’ the diplomat said, ‘ if I put you in touch with an NGO that has experience dealing with these types of things.” I didn’t hear back for weeks. ‘What’s the status?’ I asked him through wechat. “I am sorry, Mark,” he replied, “It is just too busy.”  So many hopeful starts and sudden stops – frustrating.

“Find some Jews. They would love to help”

Another difficulty I had was locating a good piano. Living 1000s of miles away, in zero-COVID Shenzhen, China where travel was impractical or impossible, forced me to rely on others for help. I called all my musical friends. Finally, a classical concert promoter I had known over the years contacted a Chinese concert pianist whose Polish teacher knew of a piano shop in Warsaw. I contacted Mr. Bendarski, the owner of PIANOPOINT, who quickly emailed me, ‘Yes, I have a good second hand Yamaha upright that is within your budget.’ 

Spring passed. To escape the omnipresent hazmatted Da Bai (Big White) workers and the oppressive health regimes of Shenzhen, my wife and I traveled to the more liberal climate of Lijiang, a small and beautiful city in China’s southwest Yunnan province. Nevertheless, our Ukraine project had to be conducted completely over email, wechat and phone calls.

Traveling with my wife in Yunnan, China

It was now early Summer and I had never had so much difficulty locating instruments and recipients. I had found a piano but I still had to locate a refugee centre. I did my research; Internet news reports, cold calls to various NGOs in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. I even called Hank Johnson, a congressman I had met on a delegation to China over ten years ago. “Let me see if we can help,” he said. Wonderful, I thought, I have a US congressman on my side. Something will definitely happen! His chief of staff promised to look into it. Nothing happened.  There is a saying in Chinese: shi shang wu nan shi zi pa you xin ren (世上无难事只怕有心人). There is nothing in the world more fearsome than one determined person. Who would be our ubermensch, to reference Nietzsche? I do not know. People were earnest, but they simply couldn’t deliver, or just had more pressing matters than helping send a piano somewhere half way across the world. Every week I would make at least 2 or 3 long distance calls and many more emails. I even telephoned my mother in Nairobi. Her surprising answer: “Find some Jews. I think they would love to help.”

I called Jewish community centres in Poland and Ukraine, but they were dead ends. Finally, I contacted my friend, Selig Sacks, a prominent New York Lawyer I had met in Washington D.C many years ago during Halloween. I had been trick or treating with my nieces and we had lunch at the invitation of then Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzer’s senior aide. Selig put me in touch with musical friends, including the great pianist Gena Raps. By August we had located two Ukrainian Schools and a refugee centre in Poland. Since the Ukrainians did not speak English, I relied on many multi-lingual intermediaries.

One of the Ukrainian Schools was very promising, but locating a reasonably priced piano in Dnipro, where it was located, proved impossible. Prices were twice my Foundation’s budget. In late September, the bombs started falling on Dnipro, again, and I lost contact with the school. Around the same time Mr Bednarski told me the Yamaha piano had been sold. He assured me, however, that he would locate another piano, which he did. Elizabeth Szancer, a friend of Gena’s put me in touch with Jonathan Ornstein and Sebastian Rudol of the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) in Krakow, Poland. They manage an 18th century Palace that they rented and repurposed to house over scores of Ukrainian refugees. On October 20, I received the signed agreement and now we had, at long last, after months of effort, our first Piano+1 program outside of Europe. Let’s bring art to kids! I am sure Joseph Baker was smiling from above.

The JCC refugee Centre in Krakow Poland and a future student

The Palace in Paszkowka, a village 25 miles to the west of Krakow where JCC Krakow has hosted 70 Ukrainians since April 2022.

Viktoria Rymar from Ukraine

Banking in China and Post-Communist Poland

Little did I know that there was more trouble in stock. The piano shop gave me the wrong wire transfer information and Santander Bank in Poland returned the funds to my Hong Kong Bank, HSBC. Two weeks later, and inexplicably, HSBC sent it back because it was addressed to the wrong company. I was furious at HSBC for not checking more thoroughly. At this point no-one, the banks, the piano shop, and myself knew where the money went. Alice Chiu, one of our board members once said to me: “A woman made a donation to my foundation many years ago, when I was starting. It was a small amount, but I remembered to thank her. In the charity business, one must always respect and thank the donors, no matter how much or little they give.” I remembered Hanny, a Lichtenstein benefactor who had donated funds when I gave two benefit concerts in Austria and Lichtenstein, in 2019, at the invitation of the Vice Chancellor of the Mozarteum University in Salzburg. “I don’t care how you use the funds, but a piano for children would be nice,” she said, as her husband Marty nodded his head. I was determined to respect our donors and not waste their money.

We spent weeks on fruitless phone calls, emails and meetings. The money was lost. Finally, on my wife’s advice, I called the Hong Kong Monetary Authority to make a formal complaint. The next day the money (short 60 euros) was credited to my account. Whether it was a coincidence, I do not know. Relieved, I rewired the money, and this time the piano shop received the funds. A Polish friend wryly commented: “It looks like sending money through the Great Wall. Currency incoming [is] good. Outgoing … not so good. Kinda reminds me [of] old times in Poland. From [a] different era.”

A Time For Good News – Despite Personal Challenges

Might my famous name have raised alarms? At times, it has been my bane. Politically exposed Person (PEP) is an acronymn used by banks worldwide to identify politically connected people. They are then scrutinized ad infinitum for terrorist connections, embezzlement, corruption, you name it. So many checks and inquiries. Getting a routine transaction approved is sometimes like a Palestinian getting onto a El Al flight at the height of the Intifada. Banks are the most conservative of species. For all the glamor and fame of being brother to a US President, it has often proved an uncalled for albatross around my neck. What I have done is credited to the name, for good or bad – rarely to myself alone.

Many thanks to all who made this program possible including Adam, Chuck, Elizabeth, Gena, Hannfried, Hank, Hanny and Marty, Jarek, Jola, Jonathan, Kexin, Ruth Ndesandjo, Sebastian, Selig, my wife Xue Hua and many other unnamed volunteers around the world.

Finally the Ukrainian kids in Poland will get their piano, and they can begin to dream again. Here in China, the first snowfall of the year has begun, and the zero-COVID policy has been scrapped. It is a time of change indeed.

Our donated Hyundai piano, Delivering the piano on Jan 1, 2023, New Years Day

The piano has been placed in the palace, in the beautiful Mirror Chamber. Jolanta Koziol, is JCC Krakow coordinator of the refugee centre in Paszkowka


Mark Obama Ndesandjo is the Chairman of a charity for cultural exchange based in Hong Kong. He lives in China, is a concert pianist and the author of 5 books including An Obama’s Journey and The Chinese Kafka: The Complete Translated Poems of Li Shangyin. His blog is www.atangpoetfromnairobi.com. For more details on the charity, or to help please visit www.markobamandesandjo.com

©2023 Mark O. Ndesandjo

2 thoughts on “On Pianos for Ukrainian Kids

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s