Al Jazeera’s Mereana Hond looks at how Europe’s refugee crisis sits within the greater catastrophe being endured.
Ayham Ahmad made international headlines when videos of him playing the piano in the Yarmouk refugee camp, home to thousands of Palestinians in Damascus, went viral. Amid shells of homes and piles of rubble, he played for crowds of refugees who joined him in song.
After fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stormed the camp, his piano was burned, and what little semblance of life he had was lost.
Ahmad fled Yarmouk with the hope of reaching safety on European shores, writing on his Facebook page: “Dearest Mediterranean, I am Ayham and would like to safely ride your waves. People here just want to go to Europe… They ride in dinghies prone to overturning in seconds… We would like Turkey to open its borders with Greece and let us board overland in safety, away from the boats of death.”
Al Jazeera spoke with Ahmad via Skype after he arrived in the Greek island of Lesbos.
Al Jazeera: How did you start your journey?
Ayham Ahmad: We sailed early morning; we were getting ready at 4am. The trip was quite dreadful – it was quite an experience. I thought the boat would sink. The boat motor was bad, didn’t function that well. They changed the motor as we got ready at 4am. We got to Lesbos at 6:10am.
The journey was very rough. The boat was supposed to hold 40, but we had 70 passengers on board. Honestly, I don’t think the boat was equipped to carry more than 10 when it came to safety requirements. Trading with human lives is now the trend between Turkey and Greece, and there was no other way to get to Greece, except by sailing the sea – especially if you don’t have money. If you do, they get you on a big boat, and then you are on your own.
Al Jazeera: What do you think about the people you left behind in the camp, your family?
I am hoping I can get somewhere better where one day I can play music again. I miss playing the piano, and I hate to be playing music away from the camp, but I will play wherever I can so I can be close to the hearts of the people.
Ahmad: Leaving Yarmouk camp was a tragic experience. My house came under fire, so I had to flee with my family. The camp is no longer a place where we can play music. I am hoping I can get somewhere better where one day I can play music again. I miss playing the piano, and I hate to be playing music away from the camp, but I will play wherever I can so I can be close to the hearts of the people.
[Later, I plan to head out] on a big boat that will have around 1,000 people. It will take us six hours to get to Athens. I will stay there for one day, and then I will take the ground route that everyone else is taking, the Syrian refugees and everyone else. I see that there are so many Iraqis, Afghans too. The least were the Syrians, even though the crisis in Syria is the worst.
Al Jazeera: What are you planning to do to highlight the struggle of those who are still under siege?
Ahmad: I am nothing but a pianist. There is nothing I can do to help my people on the political level. I wish I could, but the best I can do is to play for the sake of hope, for the sake of spreading peace all over the world.
I hope I can get to Germany so I can better serve my country there, to serve my people – the Palestinian and the Syrian people – more through music.
Al Jazeera: When do you hope to play again?
Ahmad: I want to pursue a better academic education when it comes to my music. I want to keep pushing the message of love and peace, just like I did when I was at the camp.
I think about my parents, my two boys who are left behind in Lebanon. I hope I can get them out too. I told you I managed to get out and I paid so much, and the journey was disastrous, very rough. Palestinians are not supposed to leave, so it was more expensive for me, and I knew I couldn’t bring them with me on this trip. It was too risky. They also cannot go back to Yarmouk; it is unbearable there, no one can survive the camp after three years of siege and famine.
People are still dying out of malnutrition and hunger. Fifteen days ago, an elderly man just died. The whole case is a global one. I am 27-years-old, a young parent. I had to leave so I can get my kids out so they can have a better future. I want to teach them music one day.