BU music students lose instruments in fire

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TIM SMITH/THE BRANDON SUN

Fourth-year Brandon University School of Music student Jia Zhang from Beijing, China, is currently staying at the Clarion Hotel and Suites after losing her home and belongings in the apartment fire on Pacific Avenue in downtown Brandon earlier this week.

Jia Zhang has moved into four hotels and five rooms since last Friday when a small fire forced her and her daughter from their Valley View Condominium at 1400 Pacific Ave.

“It’s been so hard,” she told the Sun from a banquet room at a hotel she is staying at.

Zhang’s condo sustained serious water damage in the second fire on Tuesday.

She made a claim to her insurance company at that point. Some of her belongings could be repaired, but the entire apartment suffered water damage and she was forced to move to a hotel with her two-year-old daughter.

“Some things could be repaired. The TV. The piano.” She had an appointment on Wednesday at 11 a.m. with the insurance company who was supposed to help her pack anything salvageable and place them in storage.

“But the second fire happened on Tuesday,” she said.

“I can’t imagine if I have no insurance,” she said. “It’s incredible.”

This time, she lost everything.

It destroyed baby photos and her beloved piano that brings her to tears. Zhang is majoring in piano performance at the School of Music at Brandon University. The black lacquered Yamaha piano was a gift from her husband for their daughter’s birthday. “He understands how deeply I love music.”

A full-time mother, there’s only her to look after her child. Her husband lives in Beijing.

“When I play my piano, I feel so relaxed. I’m happy. That’s the reason I insisted on my studies every day. I didn’t quit.” A week after she gave birth to her daughter, Mila, she was back in school. “I don’t want to miss any classes. I love it.” Three months after quitting her job as a lawyer in China, she was in Brandon.

Zhang studied and played the piano since childhood in China. Zhang’s first degree was in law, but she is an artist at heart.

The night of the fire, Zhang heard about it through social media. “I cried.” And then she was contacted by a member of the City of Brandon’s Emergency Support Services less than an hour after the fire started.

“All the baby’s things. All the photos. My piano. Gone,” she said.

Her burgundy sweatshirt, yellow pants, flip flops and corduroy ball cap are the only clothes she has. She was able to grab some baby clothes for her two-year-old daughter the first time around.

“I have some clothes for her. I don’t have enough for myself.”

The insurance company will help her rent another home, but they haven’t said when that will happen. “I need to wait,” Zhang said. She understands because there are so many people affected by the fire.

“I don’t have time to think about the next day. That’s how my life is right now.”

“I really want to thank the dean (of music), my professor, Alexander Tselyakov and Maria at the Brandon University Learning Centre Daycare,” she said.

“Maria said to me, do we need to give you clothes, books, toys for your daughter, some comfort things to comfort her heart. And I think about her heart.”

“My professor phoned me within an hour after the fire. He’s so nice. His wife told me she can help me care for my baby. And the dean saw me, and said, don’t worry. We’ll help you.”

“I feel like I’m not alone here. I really want to say thank you to those three people.”

Zhang is deeply humbled from the outpouring of support she’s received. “I’m only an international student. I’m not Canadian. And they helped me.”

It is not lost on her that there are so many others who were affected by Tuesday’s fire.

In the meantime, Zhang is using the piano at Brandon University to practise. “Practice is our job,” she laughs.

Zhang’s insurance company hasn’t given her a timeline as to when she will be able to search for another home. “Many people need help. I really understand.”

Brandon University and the Canadian Red Cross are assisting Zhang with her needs, for now.

But, she’s overwhelmed with the events of the last week and is just taking it one day at a time, and focusing on her daughter’s welfare.

Zhang knows another music student from the School of Music at Brandon University who was impacted by Tuesday’s fire.

As Eric Zhao entered the banquet room for his interview with the Sun, he apologized for the way he looked.

He was in the same clothes he’s been in since Tuesday night and explained to the Sun’s photographer he didn’t want his picture taken.

Like Zhang and so many others that night, he lost everything in the fire, too.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have insurance.

The sting of the fire was felt even more as Zhao explained his beloved B-Flat clarinet was destroyed. He estimated its replacement cost at roughly $3,000.

Zhao is staying with friends and is relying on the university for help with the school of music assisting him with the use of the class instruments.

He explained it’s not the same as the clarinet he purchased in China that has been with him for the last five years. But, it’s better than nothing and it still allows him to practise.

Brandon University’s dean of music, Greg Gatien, said there are seven students impacted by Tuesday’s fire the School of Music is helping.

“We were helping a business student too, so I think six music students for sure … and a roommate of one of our music students, who is a business major,” Gatien said.

“We’re doing anything we can to help them.”

The emerging issue for those displaced students is making sure that they have a safe place to sleep … because they lost bank cards and credit cards and in some cases passports, their vaccine cards and their student IDs that they need to get into the building, he said. “We’re card access only right now because of the pandemic.”

Gatien said the school is collecting both an inventory from the students as to what it is that they’ve lost in terms of electronics and instruments and textbooks.

An outpouring of support from faculty, staff and students who are taking an inventory so those impacted students can be matched up with people who are trying to help them is underway.

The emotional impact of losing an instrument has been, “heartbreaking,” Gatien said.

“We’ve seen them cry in our offices. There was the recognition that this instrument, which they’ve saved for years, they’ve carefully selected it.

“It’s heartbreaking for us to see and it’s heartbreaking for the students because it’s a very personal item.

“So it’s been a rough week for them.

“Young people are amazing. Three of (the students) from Winnipeg, their parents came up to help them and bring them home, to help replace clothes and toiletries and pots and pans.

“But many are international students, and they were in class the next day. It’s really remarkable.

“We’ll figure out how to get them through this semester and support them however we can.”

This has been the biggest disruption Brandon University has seen, according to Grant Hamilton, director of marketing and communications.

“This is certainly the biggest (displacement) that I can remember,” Hamilton said.

In total, 16 BU students were displaced from Tuesday’s fire.

Support from the BU community has been heartwarming. By Friday afternoon, $6,000 had been raised to assist those impacted students.

“That’s one of the benefits of Brandon University being such a small, tight-knit community. International students, especially, are a really tight-knit group,” Hamilton said.

“It does remind you of the benefits of being a compassionate, close-knit campus and the fact that people come together so quickly to support … we’re seeing this in Brandon just in general.”

Brandon University has provided housing for some students. Some displaced students have moved into residence. Assistance with textbooks and a small Emergency Funds grants are being provided to those students.

“Bags and bags of clothes have been dropped off at the dean of students office. Pretty quickly, things like winter coats and mitts and toques are going to be essential. All those were lost,” he said.

A synopsis of the supports BU offers is can be viewed at brandonu.ca/news/2021/09/22/supports-available-for-those-affected-by-fire.

Those wishing to assist in replenishing the Student Emergency Fund can do so at BrandonU.ca/Give or by calling 204-727-7374. Emails can be sent to Brandon University Foundation or by mail to 270–18th Street, Brandon, MB, R7A 6A9.

» kkielley@brandonsun.com, with files from Kyle Darbyson



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