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Monday, September 6, 2010


Blind piano prodigy and family must leave U.S.

Blind piano prodigy and family must leave U.S. to have a chance to come back and study

James Fanelli
Sunday, September 5th 2010, 4:00 AM

Yerko DiFonis, partially deaf and legally blind, is a piano prodigy. An illegal immigrant from Chile, he will return to his native country to preserve the chance of a future student visa.

Xanthos/NewsYerko DiFonis, partially deaf and legally blind, is a piano prodigy. An illegal immigrant from Chile, he will return to his native country to preserve the chance of a future student visa.


Though blind and partially deaf, Yerko DiFonis has wowed audiences and taken home top prizes for his remarkable piano playing.

But his dazzling musical talents can't keep him in the country.

The 17-year-old prodigy and his family have lived illegally in the United States since 2000, in hopes that the boy would receive better treatment than in their native Chile.

Yerko, who plays music from memory, has thrived - even getting accepted at the city's prestigious LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.

But instead of starting his junior year this week, he and his family will return to their homeland on Sept. 25 under the threat of deportation.

"I say my wish would be that myself and my family would all either get green cards or have the possibility of becoming American citizens," he said.

Born legally blind, Yerko can only differentiate between light and dark and needs hearing aids in both ears. None of the public schools in Chile could handle his disabilities.

"The only reason that we came here was that I wasn't getting a good education in Chile," Yerko said. "The first year that I went there, I basically sat around and did nothing."

Yerko, his mother and brother flew to New York in 2000 on a temporary visa, the family says.

His father, Stefanos DiFonis, snuck into the country through Canada that same year, but was arrested. He remained in New York despite a judge's order removing him from the country, records show.

The family has led a comfortable life on Staten Island since, with his father running a contracting business. All that changed on July 1, when an immigration officer arrested his father and told him he would soon receive deportation papers, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official said.

While the DiFonises want to remain in New York, they fear doing so will jeopardize Yerko's chances of attending a top U.S. conservatory after graduation. His family hopes by returning to Chile, he can eventually come back to study at a conservatory or college.

"It will be difficult for any of us to start over," he said.

His mentors are distraught. Dalia Sakas, his piano teacher at Lighhouse International, a school for the visually impaired, said she was "just dumbstruck" when she heard. "It was like a dagger through the heart," she said.

Yerko's parents first noticed his interest in music when he was still in diapers. "I used to move my head a lot when they put music on," Yerko said.

When he was 4, he asked his dad - an accomplished guitar and bass player - to teach him some chords. By the next day, he could play perfectly. And at 6, Yerko asked his uncle to teach him the basics of the piano and then learned the rest by ear.

"He received a God gift," said his mother, Beatriz, 40. "He listens to any music and plays it right now."

Three to four hours of daily practice and classical training have honed his talent. He can play from memory masterpieces by Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, Robert Schumann and many other great composers.

His talents led to a solo performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a concert put on by students at Lighthouse. Last year, he took first place in New York State in the Very Special Arts Young Soloists Competition.

He has even composed his own piece, a stirring, romantic ballad he calls "Flying Away."

Using a cane in public and navigating his home by touching walls and railings, Yerko is most comfortable when his hands find the 50-year-old Steinway piano in his living room.

"I like to concentrate on the emotions of the music," he said.

Under U.S. immigration laws, if Yerko were 18 and caught as an illegal, he would be considered an adult and subject to a 10-year ban from entering the United States.

At 17, he can elude the penalty by returning to Chile and later applying for a student visa, the State Department and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services confirm.

In the meantime, the move means going back to teaching himself the classics.

"I am planning to take music with me, so I can self-study some pieces until I find a piano teacher I can study with," Yerko said. "I'll probably have to be on my own for a bit."

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