Amidst wartime devastation, his piano playing once gave people hope in his home city in Syria. After fleeing to Germany, Aeham Ahmad has now been joined by star musicians at a benefit in Bonn.
"With your music, you gave something back to those who were with you - a moment of humanity and dignity - and thus something infinitely valuable: hope," said Friedrich Kitschelt in his commemorative address. The Secretary of State in the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development continued, "…hope that suffering and destruction caused by man can be overcome by people like yourself. We honor you for your courage to make music in an environment where artistic performances are forbidden and sometimes lead to draconian punishment."
Music to make one think
The images were seen around the world: surrounded by children, an emaciated young man plays in the rubble on a street in a devastated refugee camp. The destruction in the wake of the Syrian civil war was recent, but the camp for Palestinian refugees in the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk has existed since the 1950s. A girl who had sat next to the pianist later died through a shot in the head.
Now 27 years old, Aeham Ahmad lives in a refugee home near the German city of Giessen. Having studied music in Damascus and Homs, he grew up in Yarmouk and has thus spent most of his life in refugee settlements. Once the home of 150,000, the camp's population shrunk to an estimated 16,000 after massive bombing by Syrian forces and attacks by "Islamic State" terrorists. The Al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaida-affiliated organization, currently holds sway in Yarmouk, which, to quote UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, became a "death camp."
With his playing, the musician wanted "to prove to the whole world that the majority of Syrians don't want this war," said Ahmad in an interview with DW. People would sing or dance along to the improvised performances, demonstrating, he said, that Syrians and Palestinians "love life" - even amidst a catastrophic tragedy.
Hope never fades?
But after an "IS" militant burned his piano, Ahmad found himself forced to flee. During the difficult journey, he had to send his wife and children back to Damascus, having already left his remaining instruments behind. He is currently waiting for the opportunity to bring his family to join him to Germany.
For his efforts, Aeham Ahmad was awarded the International Beethoven Prize and performed his "Songs of Yarmouk" at a chamber concert in Bonn on December 18 - joined at one point by fellow Syrian musicians Kinan Azmeh und Ibrahim Keivo.
It was an evening of musical fireworks at Bonn's National Art Gallery: Beethoven, Brahms and Ravel juxtaposed with the composition "A Sad Morning, Every Morning" by and with Damascus-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. In "Laments and Songs" in Arabic, Aramaic, Kurdish and other languages, Ibrahim Keivo sang and accompanied himself on the saz, a Middle Eastern lute.
Crowning the all-star cast were the world-famous Swiss-Argentine pianist Martha Argerich and her duo partner Akane Sakai. German pianist Kai Schumacher gave a rousing rendition of Beethoven's melody "Ode to Joy", as adapted by Bruce Stark, to wrap up the evening.
The lineup: Karim Said, Luise Imorde, Martha Argerich, Akane Sakai, Aeham Ahmad, Kinan Azmeh, Ibrahim Keivo and Kai Schumacher
Beethoven Prize awarded for the first time
"Along with Beethoven's music, I want to bring attention to his ideals," said Torsten Schreiber, co-initiator of the International Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Inclusion and the Fight Against Poverty. "I base this on Beethoven's own claim: to do good where one can, to love freedom above everything else and not to deny the truth - even in the face of death."
The concert proceeds are donated to "Ausbildung statt Abschiebung" (Education, Not Deportation), an association in Bonn that has sought to provide education for young refugees in Germany for nearly 15 years.