Aeham Ahmad: Make your own decisions!

edited by Philipp Blom

I was born a refugee in Syr­ia and then I had to flee again – a refugee twice over. I grew up in Yarmouk camp as a Pales­tin­ian in Syr­ia. My father, who is blind and a musi­cian, made me learn to play the piano and I took over his shop. It was a curi­ous upbring­ing, in a camp that is real­ly a city, as strangers in a strange land, between Arab and west­ern clas­si­cal music.

I stud­ied and got mar­ried, build­ing a future for us. But when the war came, famine and bombs start­ed to kill peo­ple every day. The siege stopped all food and water from reach­ing us. Peo­ple were des­per­ate, fight­ing over a sin­gle cup of milk. My baby son lost half his body weight.

I had to make sure we had some­thing to eat, and I found a few sacks of bird seed and began to fry falafel in the street and to sell it. A pianist who played Mozart and Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rach­mani­nov, I am shot down, sit­ting in the street fry­ing falafel. That is when I decid­ed to take my piano and move it into the street, into the rub­ble. I sim­ply had to play for my com­mu­ni­ty. A musi­cian needs an audi­ence, oth­er­wise he dies. So, I played and kids around me formed a choir. At first peo­ple were curi­ous, but after a while they got sick of my play­ing. It didn’t help. We were there, singing “we need water, we need water”, but we still didn’t have water.

„I PLAY THE PIANO to build a community.”

Was it coura­geous what I did? I did not think it was. I sim­ply had to do it. Out in the street you can be killed, but oth­er­wise you die of hunger, you die lit­tle by lit­tle. And I knew that I was also putting oth­er peo­ple in dan­ger with my play­ing. I risked my wife los­ing her hus­band, my sons his father. Once I was play­ing and a lit­tle girl was stand­ing there, lis­ten­ing to me. A sniper killed her in front of my eyes. I will nev­er be able to for­get that moment.

When peo­ple in the west heard about the pianist in the ruins they cel­e­brat­ed my courage, but that was just their roman­tic, west­ern mind. I am not a strong per­son, and I did not play to give peo­ple hope. I was play­ing to stay alive myself.

What peo­ple have made of my play­ing in the ruins was very ambiva­lent for us. A press pho­tog­ra­ph­er took a pic­ture of me and it was pub­lished all over the world, the pianist in the green t‑shirt who gives peo­ple hope. But he did not care about the con­se­quences for us. After the pho­to, we were tar­get­ed even more by snipers and by bombs. More peo­ple died. He did not take that pic­ture to help us.

If you ask me what courage is and whether it can be learned, I can only answer as a musi­cian. In music you need to have courage, to trust your instincts, to act in the moment, to impro­vise. But impro­vi­sa­tion does not mean act­ing ran­dom­ly or with­out a plan. Impro­vi­sa­tion is 20 % free­dom, and 80 % tech­nique and expe­ri­ence. Only if you have this expe­ri­ence can you impro­vise in any giv­en moment. You can be coura­geous only if you have an inner struc­ture you can trust, if you have prac­ticed and expe­ri­ence how to act. That is the secret of mak­ing music, but it is also the secret of being able to act in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, hav­ing some­thing inside you that you can rely on.


Despite the life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tion under the IS regime, the Pales­tin­ian-Syr­i­an refugee and pianist played the piano in the embat­tled Pales­tin­ian camp Yarmouk near Dam­as­cus. As “pianist in the rub­ble” he protest­ed against vio­lence, dev­as­ta­tion and hunger, estab­lished a sense of com­mu­ni­ty and gave peo­ple hope.

In spring 2015, due to the imposed ban on music, the Islamists burned his piano in front of his eyes. Since this inci­dent, his life was under seri­ous threat and Aeham Ahmad had to leave his fam­i­ly behind. He fled from Syr­ia via Turkey, Greece, Ser­bia, Croa­t­ia and Aus­tria and reached Ger­many in Sep­tem­ber 2015. 

In Octo­ber 2015 Aeham Ahmad gave his first con­cert for refugees and vol­un­teers in Munich, fol­lowed by more than 200 con­certs sup­port­ing the refugee relief and oth­er char­i­ty con­certs. How­ev­er, due to an injury by a piece of shrap­nel in his right hand, a career as clas­si­cal con­cert pianist will most like­ly be impos­si­ble for him. In Decem­ber 2015, Aeham Ahmad was award­ed the Inter­na­tion­al Beethoven Prize for Human Rights.