Story highlights

Aeham Ahmad found fame playing his piano amid the rubble of war-ravaged Yarmouk.

After ISIS threatened him and set fire to the instrument, he fled Syria for Europe.

He now has a record deal and a thriving career as a concert pianist.

CNN  — 

Aeham Ahmad sits at the piano, eyes closed and hands hovering over the keyboard. His voice is filled with pain as he starts to sing the mournful Arabic lyrics to his favorite song, about life in Yarmouk.

“Every time I play I think of Yarmouk. I see destruction, children crying and people starving,” Ahmad says.

The 28-year-old grew up in the impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus that was established as a Palestinian refugee camp three generations ago. He remembers it as a beautiful, vibrant community.

His father – a blind violinist – taught him how to play on an old brown Russian piano when he was five, and as a teenager Ahmad knew he wanted to be a pianist. “It is something in my fingers, I just can’t stop, it is like a drug,” he explains.

He would travel hours back and forth from the Syrian capital to the conservatory in Homs where he studied the works of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Later, he opened his own music shop.

Aeham was driven to try and help the people of Yarmouk forget the traumatic situation they were in.

Then the Syrian civil war came, and changed everything: Yarmouk was besieged by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Food, water and medicine became scarce, and dodging sniper fire was a daily reality.

READ MORE: Yarmouk’s wasteland sums up 4 years of civil war

But even as a humanitarian disaster unfolded around him, Ahmad was driven by an unstoppable passion for music and a desperate desire to “make the children smile again.”

So he pushed his piano into the wrecked streets of his hometown and started to play in the rubble. “I wanted to give the children hope,” he says. “They had no food, no school to go to.”

Aeham pushed his piano through the streets of Yarmouk to entertain residents of the besieged area.

The neighborhood’s youngest residents would gather around the piano and sing along in a rare moment of relief from the war.

Videos of Ahmad’s impromptu concerts spread on Youtube, and “The Pianist of Yarmouk” became a symbol of courage amid the chaos.

When ISIS took control of the area in April 2015, the situation got worse: The militants banned music, calling it “haram” (forbidden) and threatened Ahmad and his family.

READ MORE: Miracle children in Syria’s ‘deepest circle of hell’

One day an ISIS recruit set the young father’s piano on fire; he could do nothing but watch it burn.

“It hurt, but I wasn’t sad about the piano, I had plenty more,” he says. “I was sad because people were dying in Yarmouk.” His voice starts to tremble as he remembers the time a sniper shot a young girl who had come to watch him play. “Her name was Zayda,” he says.

Ahmed plays piano in the middle of Damascus before it was destroyed by ISIS
ISIS destroyed his piano, but he plays on
01:25 - Source: CNN

READ MORE: ISIS tried to silence him, but pianist won’t stay quiet

Ahmad knew he had to flee Syria, so with the help of a German journalist, he paid a group of smugglers to get him to Turkey, and became one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees making the grueling journey across the Mediterranean and north through Europe.

He made it to Germany in September 2015, at the peak of the country’s “open door policy” towards migrants and refugees, and eventually settled in the picturesque city of Wiesbaden, where he was finally able to play again.