How one group of refugees turned their plight into a musical tour

The journey across the Mediterranean and Europe is bleak and painful for most refugees – but for 26-year-old Syrian musician Anas Maghrebi, it was fun. “It’s surreal to say that, but it was.”

War-torn Syria had been a “dead end” for musicians, says Maghrebi. After the protest against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, the country had collapsed into bitter civil war. When the drummer of his original band, Rabea, was killed in 2012, it was clear there was little hope for artistic freedom. “Our friend was a peaceful activist; all of us at some point participated in the protests but he was the most serious one. He was helping, not just participating,” Maghrebi says. “These were some dark times for us, because the dream vanished away.”

In 2013 Maghrebi left Damascus for Lebanon, where he met up with other musicians to form Khebez Dawle, but as refugees they were unable to make a living there. In August this year, the four band members – Maghrebi, Muhammad Bazz, Hikmat Qassar and Bashar Darwish – realised they were going to have to make another push. They sold their instruments to pay smugglers $1,200 each and set out in a dinghy across the Mediterranean.

“We were told we’re lucky enough to get this dinghy with just 16 guys. It was fun though – complicated fun.”

When they landed on Lesbos, they handed out copies of their album to tourists on the beach. “Usually they see dinghies with hysterical looks, sad faces. Instead they saw happy faces, laughing, guys speaking English. We introduced ourselves as a band. Everybody was just shocked.”

A week after landing, while staying at a Croatian refugee centre, Khebez Dawle was asked to perform at a pro-refugee concert run by activists. The band then had a gig at a club in Zagreb, which has hosted bands such as Mogwai. They borrowed instruments, played to a full audience, and have since had invitations to play at concerts and festivals around Europe. “For us it was surreal enough that we were still wearing the clothes we were wearing during the trip. The whole thing was not planned, that’s the beauty of it.”

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Khebez Dawle members landed on Lesbos and immediately handed out copies of their album to tourists on the beach: ‘Everybody was just shocked.’ Photograph: Khebez Dawle

They may have succeeded in putting a different twist on the journey. But in other ways theirs is no different from the harrowing stories of other migrants’ long waits, ill treatment at borders and the feeling of loss of identity. Maghrebi remembers a long night walking, covered in mud to get to Croatia. They were caught at the border by Croatian police and held for more than 24 hours. “We tried to become friendly with the police, to show them we’re not monsters, not criminals – just normal people,” Maghrebi says.

One of the policemen was a drummer. Maghrebi recalls: “He opened his mobile and started listening to one of our songs on YouTube. Ironically the song is talking about freedom, jail and prisoners. You could see his eyes say, ‘what are you doing here?’ But people don’t know what’s happening on the ground in Syria. They don’t know that there is no other way for us to go.”

Read the rest of the article here. (Original published in the Guardian)

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