On September 21, 2015, Aeham Ahmad, a Syrian, took to Facebook to post about his escape from the war-torn country and the harrowing journey ahead.
“Dearest Mediterranean, I am Aeham and I would like to safely ride your wave,” he wrote.
After three days – as the first sunlight of the day struck – Ahmad found himself on a Greek beach. A week later he was in Germany, a country where he lived for the next one year.
However, he had to pay a price. Ahmad left behind his kids, Kinan and Ahmad, his wife, and a burnt piano in Syria.
‘Concerts in the ruins’
The 28-year-old was born and raised in the Yarmouk camp, an impoverished suburb of Damascus that was established in 1957 to house tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
During the Syrian civil war, the Syrian militia encircled Yarmouk, blocking delivery of food, water and medical supplies to the residents. Planes bombarded the area as snipers shot at anything that moved.
Ahmad’s family had to survive with no food and water, as people died around them. Facing an inevitable death, he decided to face it with dignity by giving hope to his camp’s inhabitants with a piano.
He took his father’s piano to the bombed-out streets of his Syrian neighbourhood to play music. When many died, starved or picked up weapons to fight in Syria’s civil war, he played uninterrupted to tell the world of his people’s plight as warplanes hovered above, levelling every building to the ground.
“I used to put my piano in a wagon and pull it onto the street, where I would play songs I composed, inspired by the situation in the camp and in Syria. All I used to do was tell stories of my people and country,” says Ahmad.
His “concerts in the ruins,” he says, “will always be a part of Syrian people’s collective memory.”
While playing in the war-ravaged streets, he found music could bring a message of hope even in the face of war, famine and bombs. He vowed not to pick up arms at a time when it seemed as if everybody had joined the rebels or the militia.
Soon Ahmad became a symbol of hope, helping Yarmouk’s people — particularly its children, who gathered around and sang with him. “They used to love the music. It used to make me so happy. For a moment, they forgot the brutal war raging around them with every note I played,” Ahmad says.
Ahmad caught the immediate attention of the international media with his singing and piano-playing skills in the middle of Syria’s rubbles. During the worst of Syria’s violence in 2011, people posted videos of the demonstrations on YouTube. That’s when videos of Ahmad playing the piano started flourishing on YouTube.
“I didn’t know in the beginning that so many people will listen to my music through the internet. I thought only a few in Syria listen to me but it was not so. Through my music, I used to tell the stories of the war that killed many. It was my humble contribution for my people,” Ahmad says.
Ahmad considers himself an artist, who is trying to tell the world about the war and terror in conflict-ridden Syria.
“People say I am a star. I am not a star. I am a refugee. I am a refugee artist who is trying his best to tell his story and the story of his people,” Ahmad says. “I am a storyteller—a pianist who tells stories with his music.”
A burning piano
But Ahmad had yet to see the worst.
Four years of siege, famine and bombing of his Damascus refugee camp didn’t kill the celebrated pianist, but something died inside him the day Islamic State militia burned his beloved piano in front of his eyes.
“They said it was un-Islamic. What is wrong with having a piano?” Ahmad says.
Scared but unyielding, Ahmad stood up to the guy who was about to burn his piano. But there was nothing he could do.
When Ahmad tried to plead with the man, he was slapped and threatened. “He told me to shut up and threatened to throw me on top of the piano and burn me along with it.”
As the ISIS soldier began to pour fluid on the wooden frame of his piano, Ahmad knew it was time.
It was then that Ahmad, who took to the streets with fellow musicians to stand up to those who would crush the human spirit, considered leaving the country.
“It was a very hard decision for me, but I had to do it. I was getting death threats from ISIS. My friends and family told me to leave. I did what needed to be done but I never stopped playing my piano,” says Ahmad.
Ahmad moved out of Syria in late 2015. He crossed Homs in central Syria, intending to continue on to Turkey, Greece and finally, Germany. But he was arrested in Homs for nine days and had to let his wife and kids go back to the camp in Damascus.
He later arrived in Germany in 2015 without his family and “sought to bring comfort to the residents of the asylum seekers in Germany.”
Songs about Syria
In Germany, Ahmad has played the piano in as many as 120 concerts.
“All of these songs bring up deep, mixed emotions inside me, bitter memories and sweet memories of Syria which people around the world should know about,” says Ahmad.
Ahmad said he will continue playing the piano not because he loves to do it, but he has to do it.
“I will tell the story of Syria everywhere. In Germany, there are thousands of Syrian refugees. I sing to them. It makes them feel closer to home,” says Ahmad.
When asked how he sees his future and the war in Syria, Ahmad exclaims: “I don’t need a war. Nobody needs it. The war came to us. It came to me. And it will end.”
Ahmad hopes to return to Syria soon and play his piano again. He wants the war to end and see children stay in school, people walk freely and him playing his piano – uninterrupted in the streets of Syria and sing.
His eyes glisten when asked what he will do when the war is over. He answers: “When the war is over, I’ll go home.”
(The writer was in Germany for the Global Media Forum, sponsored by Deutsche Welle)