Syrian refugee Rami Basisah: 'I want to play for everyone and teach people that refugees are human too'
From escaping his war-torn homeland to the release of a heartbreaking and hit debut album, Syrian refugee Rami Basisah shares his incredible story with Joe Nerssessian
It's been two years since Rami Basisah joined millions of his countrymen in fleeing war-torn Syria. The now 22-year-old was merely a teenager when the conflict broke out in 2011, a budding violinist studying at music college in Homs.
As fighting escalated in 2015 and he neared military age, the youngster opted to try to reach Europe. He survived a tumultuous 2,500 mile journey across land and sea to reach Germany, where his talent was recognised with a record deal.
While his family and countrymen continue to face the daily realities of war, this young musician has just released a heartbreaking debut album which unites traditional Syrian songs and classical takes on Western hits.
His father an architect engineer and mother a teacher, Basisah was born in a small village near the central Syrian city of Hama.
He first picked up the violin as an eight-year-old. Inspired by the sound of Vivaldi coming from his older sister's bedroom, he asked for lessons and it wasn't long before he began dreaming of a future as a famous Syrian violinist.
But as the conflict began in the wake of the Arab Spring and spread across his homeland, he was forced to abandon plans of studying at the High Observatory of Music in Damascus.
Leaving his family behind, he joined the exodus alongside a group of friends from college. First taking a bus to Lebanon, then a short flight to Turkey before boarding his first boat from the Aegean coastal city of Izmir, aiming to reach Greece.
"We knew we were risking our life but we had no choice," he says down the phone from his new home in Germany.
"The mafia promised us there would only be 30 people on the boat but when we arrived there were 48 adults and eight children. It was horrible, after half an hour the boat was filling with water. Women were screaming and children were crying so me and my friends jumped from the boat and swam back to Turkey to stop it from sinking."
Three more futile attempts to cross from Izmir on the Aegean coast followed before the group tried their luck in the port city of Bodrum. Eventually they reached the "gateway to Europe" - the island of Kos - and were ferried to Athens by the Greek government at a charge of €60.
Stalled once again in Macedonia as the nation shut its borders to the increasing flow of refugees and migrants attempting the Balkan trail, he began performing for those in the camp he was held in. Journalists spotted his talent as he began to gain a reputation before boarding a train to Serbia and then Hungary.
In Hungary, he lost his prized violin after the group were thrown off the train. Chased by police through the Hungarian forest, he became separated from the instrument.
"Hungary was the worst place to be as a refugee," he explains. "The border was full of military and police so we had to split into smaller groups. My friend was carrying the violin, tried to run, but he got caught and they took us to another camp in the middle of nowhere. There was no beds, no mattress nothing, just toilets."
Fearing they would get stuck in the country, a lifeline hope came from Germany as they began accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees.
"The German government treat us properly," he says. "Of course there are some people who don't support refugees but most are welcoming."
The only real problem he found was the language but describes his new home as a "beautiful country".
When he first arrived he was handed a violin by a woman who heard of his story. He was then sent to a sports hall in the city of Lahr alongside more than 200 families.
A nearby church offered solitude and the chance to pray and practise. It was here a photo appeared in the local newspaper which prompted a German couple to invite him to live with them.
"I couldn't believe it," he says, adding: "I just hope all people will one day open their eyes and their hearts.
"We risked our life, our future to go through the sea and walking just looking for safety so please understand we are human just like everyone," he says, before adding that Syrians too have a responsibility to "prove themselves to the German and European community".
"We are educated people, we are coming here for the safety and we want to study and have a safe life rather than worrying about whether we will survive."
Basisah believes it is music which will play an important role in bringing two cultures together.
"It can open doors between refugees and the Europeans, it's so important we share the Syrian culture and music with Europe. German people play their music and I play my music and we can then find a way to play together.
"Music can bring peace anywhere, even when I was in Serbia and the police seemed evil but as soon as I started playing they were welcoming and happy."
And he dreams of a future where he can perform his music across the world.
"I want to travel to countries without worrying about borders or judgment because I want to perform for everyone and teach them refugees are human too," he says. "I also want to go back to Syria and perform there."
Based on the success of the album this doesn't sound far fetched. Featuring a cover of OneRepublic's Counting Stars as well as the heartbreaking Elegy For A Lost Nation, it hit number two in the classical charts. The standout track is Beethoven's Ode To Joy - the official anthem of the European Union.
Its poignancy is almost devastating at a time when the EU is often described as being plunged into crisis. This young violinist, who carries an enormous tale of survival and hope, offers an alternative argument.
One of cultures clashing not in fear or hatred, but in hope, freedom and blossoming creativity.
Rami Basisah's My Journey is out now on Decca Records