The prize-winning pianist making a new life in Germany

At the GSBTB Christmas team-up event last year, we hosted a jam session for musicians in our community. The very next day we read the news that one of the performers, Aeham Ahmad, had just been awarded the International Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Inclusion and the Fight Against Poverty.

You might have seen him on Youtube, playing his piano amongst the rubble in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk, in Syria. Here, Christina Homburg interviews Aeham about his journey to Germany and his new life here.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your life before you came to Germany?

Hi Christina. Of course, I am more than happy to share my story. Before coming to Germany last year, I lived in Syria, where I grew up in the Syrian/Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus. I lived there with my family, (I have a wife and two sons), until I left for Germany nine months ago. Whilst I was growing up there, I started to learn to play the piano, at age 15 and eventually attended the Classical Conservatory in Damascus, where I studied under an incredible Russian tutor, learning to play some of the great works by the likes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Learning to play the piano brought me great joy and I wanted to share it with the people in Yarmouk, particularly the children. So I eventually started to play on the streets of the city, transporting my piano with a pick-up truck.

So whilst you were studying and learning to play the piano, the political situation in Syria started to change. At what point did you and your family decide to leave?

When the conflict started in 2013, I continued to use my music to bring some happiness and joy to the people in Yamouk. However in 2015, when IS came into the area and my piano was taken, I decided to leave Syria as it was becoming too dangerous to live there and the land was just filled with so much hate and anger. Initially I left with my family, crossing Syria over land. However we had huge difficulties due to the cost and our refugee status in the country [Palestinian heritage], so I had to continue alone without them. Eventually I crossed through the Turkish border, which was a big challenge due to my passport, and continued to Germany, passing through Izmir, Lesbos and the Balkans. The trip cost over 3000 euros and took 14 days. It was extremely hard but I made it here and have been in Germany ever since.

So in the time that you have been in Germany, how have you found life here and has it been hard to adjust to life away from Syria?

Having been here nine months now, life has been good. I have been lucky enough to have a really good support network here, which has helped me to settle and integrate into the country. I now live near Frankfurt, in a nice, quiet city called Giessen and it feels like home. I am continuing to play my music, with the support of friends and a network who help me to arrange my concerts. In the nine months I have been here, I have played over 100 concerts, including 24 in Berlin and have played for everyone you could imagine, including three times for Angela Merkel. Playing my music here is so important to me. Just like in Syria, it brings people together and I am using it to help German people understand and spread the message of the current refugee crisis. Overall my experience in Germany has been very positive and I have encountered many people who are willing to help refugees like me. As a country, I like it a lot here. It is a land of opportunity and I want to make a life here.

A huge crowd gathered at the GSBTB Christmas party to hear Aeham and others jamming.

As you mentioned, you have continued to play the piano here in Germany, including a recent concert, last week, in Berlin and you were recently awarded the Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Inclusion and the Fight Against Poverty. Congratulations. How did it feel to receive such a huge recognition?

Thank you. I was of course incredibly honoured to receive the prize. But receiving this prize was much more than just about the music. It is a recognition of the fight for human rights and what we are all trying to achieve here. It is recognition that we are all family and that the Germans have welcomed me into their country. And of course this prize is for the people of Yarmouk and is a sign of peace that I hope we will have in the future.

So given all your recent success and achievements, what is next for you?

There are so many things I have planned for the future. I have been learning English for the past three months and now I need to learn German, so I am starting an integration course soon. I also need to have an operation on my finger, as I have some bomb fragments in it. After that, I want to finish university and I would like to attend the Cologne school of music, so I can continue to grow as a pianist. Eventually I would like to bring my family over here, so we can build a life together in Germany.

[Great news: Aeham’s wife and children recently joined him in Germany].

How did you become involved in GSBTB?

A friend of mine was involved in the group and asked me if I would like to share my music and work with the people of Berlin. I have been to Berlin many times now and performed a lot here and, I must say, I see a lot of good people in Berlin. It reminds me of Yamouk: a city full of people, culture, sometimes strange but very good.

Interview by Christina Homburg. Photos by Kalle Kuikkaniemi.