Middle East

Syria refugee crisis: Yarmouk pianist's perilous journey to Greece

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Media captionPianist of Yarmouk Ayham al-Ahmad records his journey from Syria to Europe

Amid the ruins of the destroyed Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, pianist Ayham al-Ahmad provided a rare glimmer of hope amid the devastation. Videos of him defiantly playing piano in the ruined streets of Yarmouk, accompanied by children and other residents of the camp, were widely shared online as a symbol of the camp's spirit of resistance.

But now Ayham al-Ahmad has had to join the millions who have fled Syria. He spoke to the BBC's Ian Pannell along each part of his route, explaining what eventually forced him to leave - and his perilous journey to Europe.

Leaving for Turkey

"Six months after the partial blockade of Yarmouk, the camp became airtight. Flour and bread were banned, everything was banned from coming into the camp.

"We used to say that they would have even stopped airflow had they found a way to do it. At that time, I started to feel the plight I inflicted upon my kids. Why did I stay? What would I do?

"The hardest times were when I used to hear Ahmad, my son, crying at two in the morning. He was hungry and there was no milk. I had some money but I couldn't buy anything for him with it.

"Those were the hardest times of my life. I never faced anything worse than that. 

"On my birthday in April this year, I decided to leave the camp - I couldn't play the piano there anymore as it would put me in danger. So I put the piano on the wagon, covered it with cardboard and tried to leave.

"But there was a member of Islamic State at the checkpoint who stopped me and asked: 'Don't you know that the musical instruments are haram [forbidden]'?" Then they burnt my piano.

"My journey to Turkey was very dangerous. I walked for four hours with snakes. I thanked Allah that I didn't bring my children, because even men were falling and I helped a few.

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Media captionHere Ayman is seen performing with children in Syria's Yarmouk refugee camp

On the journey to Izmir

"I'm very scared of the journey across the sea. As I get close to Izmir I worry about it - will the sea be like the last time I saw it, in Latakia in 2007? Will it play nice or will it be the kind of sea which took the child's life away a few days ago?

"Once in Izmir, I'll meet up with my uncle and we'll start planning our crossing. I want to make sure I'm not ripped off because I've got a very small amount of money.

"I want to make the trip as soon as possible so I can get my children and their mother from Damascus to Germany and be able to see them again.

"On the way to Turkey, I was caught in a sandstorm. The weather is getting windier and colder and the waves are higher. I've seen people shivering inside their tents in Europe.

"Although I'm so tired, I want to cross as soon as possible, I might not drown, but I might die of cold in Europe.

Image caption Ayham (third from left) was relieved the vessel made it safely to Greece - unlike many that have carried those fleeing Syria

The boat crossing to Europe

"We were stranded over in Turkey for two days because the boat's motor was busted.

"Thank God I'm here. It's a great feeling. I feel like there's a new hope rising from every area I go through.

"When I crossed from Syria to Turkey, it made such a difference to me. When I was in Izmir and saw running water and uninterrupted power, I felt the difference from when I was in the camp.

"Now, I see woods, amazing nature and a clean shoreline. I was really nervous because I didn't expect it to be so far. At one point I just wanted to take my life vest and swim ashore.

"The smuggler who put us on the boat took his sweet time and I started feeling like he was scamming us. But now I'm here in Greece and I am so happy and relieved.

"I'm very tired. People on the boat were extremely tense. They were paranoid and afraid. However, it was a smooth trip over. The sea was calm, I think the coast guards were sleeping.

"I am now out of danger, the danger of drowning, and hopefully I'll be able to reach somewhere safe where I can bring my family over because anywhere would be even more beautiful with Ahmad, Kinan and their mother. Hopefully, I'll get to Germany and I'll be reunited with my children and wife."

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