Grad student delivers Syria’s song of sorrow

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Icchiku Yamada expresses his aim to visit a peaceful Syria during an interview at the University of Tokyo’s Komaba Campus on May 11.

By Yumu Yamaguchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterStanding in front of an audience of about 200 people at a Hiroshima concert hall, Icchiku Yamada, 24, called for action for Syria.

“The civil war in Syria has gone into its eighth year. Bloodshed and destruction occur at this very moment. You may feel this is an incident happening somewhere far away from you. But there’s no option of not taking any action. What can Japan do? I’d like to start from this question,” Yamada said.

On the night of April 19, Palestinian pianist Aeham Ahmad from Syria held a concert at a hall in the city. The 30-year-old refugee, a pianist who sings about the way things are in Syria, currently lives in Germany. He came to Japan for the first time through an invitation from Yamada.

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  • Courtesy of Aeham Ahmad / Stand With Syria Japan-SSJ

    Aeham Ahmad sings and plays piano in Syria while surrounded by children.

Yamada has long thought about conflicts. He currently studies genocide at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, while engaging in support activities for Syria as the head of nonprofit organization Stand With Syria Japan-SSJ, based in Meguro Ward, Tokyo.

His activities originated with his study in France when he was in high school.

“I thought about venturing to put myself in a world of different cultures that I’d never experienced. So I studied for a year in a private school in Paris when I was in the second year of high school. At that time, I met a Syrian who became my best friend,” he said.

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck Japan in March 2011 when Yamada was studying in Paris. At around the same time in Syria, demonstrations that prefaced the civil war became violent. TV was broadcasting scenes of devastation in Japan, while also airing scenes of Syrian youths standing up in search of freedom.

Coming back from Paris, Yamada enrolled in Rikkyo University to study conflicts, and then flew to London to study for about six months while enrolled in the Japanese university. In London, he participated in the activities of a refugee relief group and was in charge of giving a helping hand to Syrian refugees and teaching English.

“Through the activities, I heard stories from a person whose family were all killed in front of him and a person who lost his precious ones in an airstrike. Hearing all that, I developed a feeling that I have to do something,” Yamada said.

Meeting Ahmad

Yamada learned about Ahmad via online video footage in November 2015. Ahmad is a third-generation refugee whose grandfather escaped from Palestine to Syria at the time of turmoil surrounding Israel’s foundation.

Ahmad grew up in a refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus and learned piano, as he was influenced by his father who is a musician.

Yamada found Ahmad in Germany. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militant group had seized control of Ahmad’s refugee camp in April 2015, and his piano was burned. He escaped to Germany, where he holds concerts in order to tell people about Syria’s present state of affairs. His videos shared online attracted the sympathy of many viewers.

Yamada contacted Ahmad, requesting him to perform in Japan. Ahmad at first laughed off Yamada’s request because Ahmad was in the middle of waiting for recognition of refugee status and did not even have a passport. Furthermore, Ahmad was crushed by a sense of helplessness because he felt he would never be able to stop the bombing, no matter how much he performed.

Yamada never gave up and kept making phone calls to Ahmad, convincing him by saying, “I want to be of help to you.” It took them 2½ years to get to hold concerts in Japan after waiting for Ahmad to gain refugee status.

Syrians’ sorrow

Ahmad’s Hiroshima concert followed his Tokyo concert, which was accompanied by a symposium. To start the concert, Ahmad chose a song he composed, with words written by a Syrian friend. The pregnant wife of the friend had been detained for 12 hours at a checkpoint that was set up due to the intensifying war. His wife and the baby died.

The pain of people in Syria, conveyed with piano accompaniment, deeply moved the audience in the atom-bombed city. Ahmed sang eight songs on that day.

After the performance, Ahmed received such feedback as, “I felt your heart cry out.”

Said Yamada: “The situation where people get killed won’t change, even if we continued support activities. But nothing starts from depression. Many people shared the pain of Syrian people at this concert. I want to keep disseminating the reality over and over.”Speech

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