Aeham colored the bleak camp with his melodies. But at the start of September the 28-year-old Palestinian fled the country along with thousands of others, seeking refuge in Europe.
A husband and father of two little boys, Aeham is known as the singing bird of Yarmouk. The camp was home to the largest community of Palestinians in Syria before tens of thousands left the camp after it was bombed by government forces and infiltrated by rebel fighters in December 2012.
The musician has now reached Europe and is planning to continue playing the piano. In the streets and on the stages of his new refuge, he says, he’ll be “singing for Palestine, for Yarmouk and for injured Syria.”
I first made contact with Aeham over Faceook one year ago. Back then, he refused to leave Yarmouk, despite months of siege without enough food, and no electricity or water. He was focused on composing music and writing lyrics urging Palestinian refugees to return to the camp.
One song, “O refugees come back,” goes: “O displaced come back, the travelling has been far too long.”
His songs were a salve to those who were unable to flee. His story was also a beacon of hope outside of Yarmouk, as videos of him performing in the camp’s bombed-out streets were shared widely on the Internet.
Since then the violence in Syria has worsened, and Aeham’s world has deteriorated.
His heart was broken earlier this year as he watched fighters from the Islamic State, who invaded and seized areas of the camp in April, set fire to his beloved piano. They told him that music was forbidden.
This only inflamed the young pianist who persevered and kept the music going.
He resumed playing on a basic plastic keyboard, shouting out his lyrics. Each verse was spat out like a fireball, retaliating against the brutality all around him. Over and over again, he sang songs that were specially composed for Yarmouk, songs that were created to keep some semblance of hope alive.
Aeham and his family ultimately fled to Damascus. After three months of contemplating the long walk to Europe, Aeham entrusted his wife and two boys to extended family in nearby Yalda, south of Damascus, so that they could follow later when he had established himself in Europe.
At the start of September, Aeham’s journey began.
Aeham had to pay a large sum of money to reach Homs, then Hama, then Aleppo in Syria’s north. From there he headed towards Turkey.
“Here is Yarmouk”
On 11 September Aeham posted on Facebook photos of himself surrounded by pine trees. The caption read: “On the smuggling road, O mother, my ties were severed. On the Syrian-Turkish border, here is Yarmouk.”
A week later I wrote to Aeham. To my surprise he replied instantly. Aeham’s voice message was filled with exhaustion and uncertainty: “I’m well, brother, I just need to catch my breath; the road is long,” he said. “I’m in Greece right now and getting ready to leave.”
He was hoping to catch an eight-hour bus ride to Serbia.
Fans and friends in Europe have tried to help Aeham.
Laila Ben Allal is a photojournalist who visited Yarmouk last May but didn’t get the chance to meet Aeham.
Laila is one of numerous sympathizers who had responded to his plight, moved by images of Aeham pushing his piano on his uncle’s vegetable cart in Yarmouk.
On 23 September, Aeham’s voice was heard again. Like his old piano, he was vibrating with hope.
“Aeham has reached Munich,” Laila told me.
Laila met Aeham on the Austrian border as he crossed on foot into Germany. Full of excitement in the back seat of the car, the piano player sang his first song in Europe. He celebrated by saluting Yarmouk camp and its displaced residents.
He sang: “From Munich, Yarmouk loves you O brother
To the one living in New York, Yarmouk loves you O brother
And to those who are still steadfast in Yarmouk may God be with you O brothers.”
Muslims across the world recently observed Eid al-Adha. It was the first time that Aeham spent the holiday away from his family.
On such occasions it is the custom for elders to give children a gift of money to spend in celebration.
Aeham’s gift this year was that of hope: for a safe and stable life when he reunites with his wife and children.
Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. Follow him on Twitter: @MoeAliN.