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Freedom song: Assyrian refugee depicts escape from Islamic State through music

George Karam Source: Supplied

George Karam began his new life in Australia two years ago after fleeing the Islamic State group in northern Syria. He tells the story of his family's arduous journey the best way he knows how - through music.

As he prepares to perform, Assyrian refugee George Karam feels several emotions, including sadness, anguish, happiness and hope.

The song he’s about to perform on his oud is unlike other pieces he has composed. The song is called 'The Escape' and it depicts how the Assyrian community of northern Syria fled an impending Islamic State invasion.

Mr Karam was born in a small village in the city of Al Hasakah in the north-eastern corner of Syria, which is part of a cluster of 34 prominent Assyrian villages along the Al Khabour River.

The Assyrians are a Christian minority mainly situated in northern Iraq and Syria, and in Mr Karam’s village, the common industry is agriculture. 

“We farmed cotton, buckwheat in addition to Apple orchards and vineyards,” he said. “I used to work in farming with my dad.

“We were growing cotton, and we would take to Al Hasakah to sell it. We had enough to meet our needs; the economic conditions were acceptable somehow.”

As an oud player and composer, Mr Karam frequently performed across Syria, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, but he would always find his way back to his close-knit community.

The Singer and Oud Composer George Karam

But the community’s peaceful existence would completely change when peaceful protests across Syria morphed into a full-blown civil war in 2011.

“No one would have imagined that a war would erupt, I thought the protests would be over in a couple of months.”

As the conflict escalated, the protesters formed rebel groups and weapons began pouring into the country and fell into the hands of fighting factions.

In the chaos, the notorious Jihadists of Iraq, once led by militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, began extending their operations to neighbouring Syria.

The Syrian government withdrew from the northern regions to protect the country’s capital, Damascus, and other more strategic cities – leaving ethnic minorities, including the Assyrians, surrounded and defenceless.

In 2015, IS captured land in north-eastern Syria and began creeping closer to the Assyrian villages.

“We started to hear gradually about IS members operating in the area, incidents of kidnapping, car stealing and looting of businesses started to spread,” he said.

“And then a full-scale attack happened in the village next to us called Tel Shimram and they kidnapped 300 people.

"All the other villages heard the news especially because communication was not cut off at this point.”

During this period, IS was one of the most prominent non-government factions in the country and the strongest in the north.

Mr Karam recalled that news of how IS kidnapped and enslaved Iraq’s Yazidi minority sent shockwaves throughout Syria.

“We left our village at night before they came to us; we crossed the river and went to Al Hasakah.

“We left everything behind us, our homes and belongings, everything, we only carried our documents and passports.”

Ruins of the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was destroyed by Islamic State (IS) fighters, in the village of Tal Nasri, Syria.
Ruins of the Assyrian Church of the Virgin Mary, which was destroyed by Islamic State (IS) fighters, in the Assyrian village of Tal Nasri, Syria.

With a strong presence of Kurdish forces and some government forces in Al Hasakah, the town was the safest place for the Assyrians to go. Mr Karam stayed in the city with his family for six months.

“It wasn’t easy, we were renting with three other families in one house, and we were living off our savings.”

Some 10,000 Assyrian Christians lived in the villages before the war began, and there were more than two dozen churches, according to the New York Times

Now, about 900 people remain. 

During this period, Mr Karam began composing a music piece to comfort his two daughters, aged 14 and 18 at the time.

“I called this piece ‘The Escape’, it tells our story of escaping war; in three minutes I tried to depict the feelings of thousands of Assyrians and Syrians.”

Little did he know that this period was the start of his journey. The situation deteriorated quickly in Al Hasakah as war arrived at its footsteps, forcing the family to flee south. 

“We fled to Damascus by bus and from there we headed to Lebanon.

“We spent hours being checked and investigated at the Lebanese and Syrians checkpoints.”

George Karam and his family.
George Karam and his family.

In Lebanon, the family was received by the Assyrian church.  

Mr Karam began working as a hairdresser to make ends meet, and he also built a small studio where he composed and produced music for local artists.

“The rent was very expensive in Lebanon, between 1000 and 1200 US dollars a month, I wanted to work as a musician but I couldn’t depend on this only, so I worked as a hairdresser as well.”

The family fell on hard times in Lebanon, as the local population became bitter at the refugees who shared the country’s resources.

“Some families really treated us well, and we had friends, but others were unwelcoming and this due to the tough economic conditions they go through as well.”

He continued writing his song, trying to better encapsulate the journey through music, which he considers the closest medium to his heart.

In 2017, the family applied for asylum in Australia through the sponsorship of Mr Karam’s sister, who was already a resident.

After eight months waiting, they were granted Australian visas and they arrived in November 2017.

As soon as they touched down in Australia, the family was assisted by Settlement Service International (SSI) who met the family in the airport and took them to a fully furnished flat in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, which is home to a large Assyrian community.

Through SSI, Mr Karam was able to finally complete his music piece. Listen to 'The Escape' below. 


“It starts with the sound of water and birds. The start represents the normal life we used to live in our villages, where we had calm, peace, security and joy.

“The beginning is really a reflection of the soul of the Assyrian villages.

“Then, the tense oud playing takes us to the IS attack, where we hear strained tunes that move quickly between a deep and high pitch, this is the phase of news spreading about IS closing onto our area.

“It gets faster as the exodus begins, we start hearing the drums as people flee until the piece reaches its peak, then the fast tempo stops suddenly and we have a reflection on the silence and stillness that followed the escape. It becomes slower and sadder to depict the tragedy people were engulfed in.

“The tune is then lifted as we arrive in Australia where we were given hope again.”

Mr Karam is now a part of a multicultural band fostered by SSI called Collusion, where he collaborates with Uyghur musician Shohrat Tursun and producer Richard Petkovic.

The group Collusion
The group Collusion

He plays the oud, Mr Tursun plays the dutar and Mr Petkovic plays the guitar, and together they play ‘The Escape’ as well as other original pieces.

“I want to work as a musician; I have degrees in music that I am currently trying to translate, so I can work in an institute or even set up my own shop to teach oud, keyboards and oriental things.

“My dream is to set up a music shop; I will keep working until my dream comes true.”

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