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."
June 2021 May 2021 April 2021 March 2021 February 2021 January 2021 December 2020 November 2020 October 2020 September 2020 August 2020 July 2020 June 2020 May 2020 April 2020 March 2020 February 2020 January 2020 December 2019 November 2019 October 2019 September 2019 August 2019 July 2019 June 2019 May 2019 April 2019 March 2019 February 2019 January 2019 December 2018 November 2018 October 2018 September 2018 August 2018 July 2018 June 2018 May 2018 April 2018 March 2018 February 2018 January 2018 December 2017 November 2017 October 2017 September 2017 August 2017 July 2017 June 2017 May 2017 April 2017 March 2017 February 2017 January 2017 December 2016 November 2016 October 2016 September 2016 August 2016 July 2016 June 2016 May 2016 April 2016 March 2016 February 2016 January 2016 December 2015 November 2015 October 2015 September 2015 August 2015 July 2015 June 2015 May 2015 April 2015 March 2015 February 2015 January 2015 December 2014 November 2014 October 2014 September 2014 August 2014 July 2014 June 2014 May 2014 April 2014 March 2014 February 2014 January 2014 December 2013 November 2013 October 2013 September 2013 August 2013 July 2013 June 2013 May 2013 April 2013 March 2013 February 2013 January 2013 December 2012 November 2012 October 2012 September 2012 August 2012 July 2012 June 2012 May 2012 April 2012 March 2012 February 2012 January 2012 December 2011 November 2011 October 2011 September 2011 August 2011 July 2011 June 2011 May 2011 April 2011 March 2011 February 2011 January 2011 December 2010 November 2010 October 2010 September 2010 August 2010 July 2010 June 2010 May 2010 April 2010 March 2010 February 2010 January 2010 December 2009 November 2009 October 2009 September 2009 August 2009 July 2009 June 2009 May 2009 April 2009 March 2009 February 2009 January 2009 December 2008