In Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, an estimated 18,000 residents are living out a bare-boned survival. A brutal government siege has left them with little food and rare access to clean water amid the daily threat of violence.
But in the middle of the devastation, a musician with a battered piano is coloring the scene with sounds of hope. He plays his music over the constant bombs, bullets and sounds of destruction.
Ayham Ahmad, 27, has played the piano since he was six years old. He studied music in the city of Homs, but left in 2012, when he was forced to abandon his studies as a result of the violence.
Ahmad now performs on the street and broadcasts his pop-up concerts via Skype, reaching an international audience. He does it to alleviate the suffering of those under siege and send a message of peace to those outside the camp.
“The message I wanted to convey is that the people of Yarmouk are civilians. They love, adore and listen to music. They’re merely people who want to live in peace, not in war,” Ayham said to Syria Deeply. He told us his story.
Syria Deeply: Can you describe the living conditions inside Yarmouk ?
Ahmad: Most people in Yarmouk are hungry, poor and incapable of doing anything. They’re either waiting for death to take them, or for a solution to save them.
In Damascus, people wake up in the morning to a cup of coffee, while in Yarmouk civilians wake up hungry at 6:30 a.m. Some of them go to pick [spinach, parsley and coriander] that they get from nearby areas like al-Qadam and Babila, and others buy them from the market when they became available for a reasonable price [25 lira for a pack of spinach].
Following that, the search for water begins. There are some institutions and parties working to provide people with water; however, some of them only provide water intermittently because the cost of bringing water into Yarmouk is very high.
We don’t have [regular] fruits or vegetables in the camp. Things got better in areas near to al-Yarmouk, such as Yalda, after they made a truce with the regime. Trucks full of rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables can enter their markets, but this is only for the people of Yalda and not for the Palestinians who live in the neighbouring area of Yarmouk. They gave food coupons to the people of Yalda called “relief tickets.” The distribution of fruits and other materials is only available for those who are given these coupons.
Ten days ago, a truck came inside Yarmouk to distribute bread. Pictures of the distribution were picked up by and circulated by the media. The truck came in from the nearby town of Bait Sahm, proving that it is in fact possible to bring in food from other towns. People crowded around the truck trying to get bread, but the truth is that only the strong ones were able to get it and weak women, for example, couldn’t get their share. The distribution was not organized, thus not fair.
Syria Deeply: How are people coping?
Ahmad: They cook soup with the few [plants] available and they add some spices to it. This is the main food for most of the people in Yarmouk. As for those few people who are in the area under military control, they can eat rice, chicken and fruit, and they’re capable of having whatever they need.
Most men left the camp and their families inside. They send them money, up to about 30,000 Syrian pounds. There are people who work on transferring this money into Yarmouk camp in the black market, and they take a percentage of 5 to 7% of the money intended for transfer.
In Yarmouk, the price of one kilo of rice is 3,000 Syrian pounds, meaning that the amount of money a family of an expatriate receives is enough to feed four people for 10 days only. As for those who don’t have anyone outside to send them money, they just wait for the aid and live on soup.
Syria Deeply: When was the first time you took your piano out to the street? And why?
Ahmad: I took the piano out for the first time in January 2015, to the yard of a destroyed school. I knew that Facebook would be the fastest way to spread the news, and I wanted people to support the instrument of the kings; the piano is a royal machine and its presence in such a destroyed street is a symbolic message that I wanted to convey, I also wanted the children to sing. Our choices are limited and bleak inside Yarmouk – we either have to join one of the parties supporting the conflict or wait for death; I say it’s better to be singing while waiting for death.
Syria Deeply: How did you feel the first time you took your piano to the street?
Ahmad: I had mixed feelings of sadness and joy, when I first played in this schoolyard. When I was 16, before the conflict began, I was taught by the Russian piano professor Vladimir Zaritski. I used to practice in the huge opera theatre with the most significant and most expensive instruments. I feel sad for what’s become of me. I play in ruined streets on an old weary piano, but through this piano I managed to feel like a musician again, and I was able to spread the love of music in the air.
This combination of sadness and joy resulted in the first song we made, and it’s called “Immigrants, Come Back.” Through this song I was calling for those who left Yarmouk to come back. Although the area is under siege and they can’t come back, I wanted to sing for them. The song goes:
“You’ve been gone for so long, do come back / Yarmouk needs us, your arms and mine.”
I called for those who risked their lives in the sea to reach Europe. Some of them made it and some died. I also called for those outside the camp in the neighboring areas and countries not to forget about Yarmouk camp and to do their best to change the situation so that they could come back to their homes.
Syria Deeply: How did people react to the idea of playing and singing on the street?
Ahmad: For people to see an actual piano in the street was a phenomenon for them, and to have music spreading in the street in times of war,under siege and in such a place gave an impression that life could still be good.
In Syria, the concept of street music didn’t really exist, so, in the first half of 2014, there was a lot of reaction from people when they heard music being played on the street.
Recently, parties in control of Yarmouk banned us from playing music in the street, So I just play in the shop or on my roof, in which you can see the mountains and thus the entire city of Damascus, which I haven’t seen in two years.
I wouldn’t have chosen to play on the roof, but it’s the only place left where I’m allowed to play, considering the security restrictions imposed on Yarmouk.
Syria Deeply: We’ve seen videos of children singing with you on the streets of Yarmouk. How have they responded to the music?
Ahmad: Children’s response to the music was a lot more enthusiastic than the adults. I always smile at the children, and the piano, this big musical instrument, triggers their curiosity. They began to memorize songs after hearing them several times, and then began asking me if they could sing the songs with me.
The songs we sang in the street were about immigration, the siege, and lack of water, so they actually mimic the reality these children are living. Their favourite song is ‘The Water Is Always Gone.’ The words of this song represent the daily suffering of the children in Yarmouk, as most kids here go with their fathers to help them carry heavy gallons of water.
Syria Deeply: You’ve participated in several concerts while living under siege, broadcasting your concerts internationally via Skype. When did the concept of playing under siege start and how has it evolved since?
Ahmad: After the beginning of winter, I couldn’t play on the roof any more because of the weather. I can’t stop playing music, so I contacted a friend of mine in Haifa and I asked him to gather a hundred people in a coffee shop, and I played for the audience on the screen through Skype. My second “concert” was played for an audience in Denmark, and the third was in Sweden.
I also participated in a protest called Save the Palestinians of Syria. I played for them on Skype and we sang together. The fourth and the most important concert was in Gaza. I played and sang from Yarmouk, which has been under siege for two years, to Gaza, which has been under siege for eight years. The last one was yesterday in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Syria Deeply: What’s the message you want to convey to through your music?
Ahmad: The message I want to convey is that the people of Yarmouk are civilians. They love, adore and listen to music. They’re merely people who want to live in peace, not in war.