From the moment the boys in the band set foot in Europe, they have been trying to change what people think when they hear the words "Syrian refugees." They had another chance in in Zagreb, where they were invited to play a gig that capped their 1,050-mile trek to Croatia.
ZAGREB, Croatia — The band members arrived like so many other Syrian refugees, climbing out of a dinghy on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos.
But instead of heading for a migrant camp or the ferry terminal, Khebez Dawle started chatting with the tourists basking on the beach outside the Aphrodite Hotel.
“We said hello. We were happy faces having fun. … Usually they see scared people, sad faces, children landing,” said lead singer Anas Maghrebi. “It was surreal for us and for them, and we wanted to make it more surreal so we whipped out the copies of the CDs from our bags and we started distributing the CDs on the beach.”
From the moment the boys in the band set foot in Europe, they have been trying to change what people think when they hear the words “Syrian refugees.” They had another chance Wednesday night in Zagreb, where they were invited to play a gig that capped their 1,700-kilometer (1,050-mile) trek to Croatia. Hundreds came to listen.
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“We have a voice. Maybe other Syrian people don’t have a voice to tell their story,” Maghrebi told the Associated Press before the concert. “It’s our responsibility to tell our story and their story. Syrian people are civilized people. They have a heritage. It’s a developed nation. Most of us are educated.”
The band’s story begins in Damascus in 2010 when Maghrebi, now 25, and his friends started listening to groups like like Pink Floyd while at university. They dreamed rocker dreams. They rehearsed in a basement, but never dared to ask permission to perform in public. That would have required approval from the authorities, and the police wouldn’t have liked their lyrics.
“You killed me, then you blamed me because I spoke,” the band sings in one of the tracks on their CD.
Then came the Arab Spring in 2011. Band members sided with demonstrators calling for more freedom of expression, and one of their members became very involved.
“He was really active,” Maghrebi said. “He believed in it.”
In May 2012, the drummer was found dead.
As the war closed in, the aspiring musicians feared their dreams were slipping away. They fled to Lebanon with many of their countrymen.
Most refugees aren’t allowed to work in Lebanon, but the band got help from a leading local artist. They cut a record, performed in clubs.
But like many other Syrians, they realized they couldn’t stay — their lives might slip away while they waited for the war to end. They sold equipment in Lebanon to earn the money for passage to Europe.
After traveling overland from Damascus to the Turkish coast, they paid a smuggler $1,200 each for a place in the inflatable dinghy that carried them 10 kilometers (six miles) to Lesbos and the European Union.
They packed clothes and CDs in their backpacks and bought two small instruments, a harmonica and a melodica, for the journey. They left the guitars behind.
They counted themselves lucky to have only 16 people in their dinghy. So many others get overcrowded with dozens of people, and sink.
In Lesbos, the indie rockers charmed the sunbathers with their music, but it was time to move on. They started walking, through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia. As tensions rose along the Serbian-Hungarian border, they decided to try an alternate route through Croatia — even though few were taking that path at the time.
They walked through vineyards in the dark, not realizing that there were still landmines in the area as a result of the war between Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s. At the border town of Ilok, they were detained by perplexed police officers who had never seen a group of Syrians before.
“We got really friendly with them,” said Maghrebi as he chain-smoked. “There was a lot of interesting and intense (conversation) inside the police station about music and how it unites people. … One of them was a rocker. He used to play drums.”
Now they are in Zagreb, performing, spreading the word. Most important they are sharing the journey of their people, the hundreds who traveled alongside them.
“This journey. It’s one of a kind. You may have it once in a lifetime,” Maghrebi told The Associated Press before their gig. “We decided to go through what our people are going through. We’re not different.”
Rock fans seemed to respond to the experience, too. At the Mocvara Club gig, people came even though they had never heard of them. The Arabic lyrics were a mystery, but the anti-oppression, anti-dictatorship message was embraced by the crowd, with a bit of explanation before the songs.
Some 200 people came to offer support, particularly given Croatia’s recent experience with war.
“We have a lot of empathy for refugees,” said Robert Bernat, 33, who just wanted to be there out of sympathy for those suffering in the war in Syria.
The band has been overwhelmed by the generosity of people. Volunteers who had no stake in their journey have given them places to stay. The club in Zagreb lent them its drum set. And on and on.
“You learn a lot about humans, about borders. You lose your faith in papers and passports and ID cards and border and nationalities,” Maghrebi said. “Your belief in humans grows stronger —way stronger.”
The concept of sharing is also embedded in their name. Khebez Dawle means state bread, a reference to the subsidized bread that is a symbol of people’s dependence on state power in Syria. The band took the name to show that man does not live on bread alone; that a stable government must also permit freedom of expression and social engagement.
“We are the bread that builds the government, not this loaf in our hands,” Maghrebi said. “This was a big discovery actually.”
Maghrebi wants to share what he’s learned. He wants to live the moment, pass it on.
“Mainly, I hope we can speak for the people who have no voice in Syria,” he said. “They are still there between Assad bombs … and ISIS knives, peaceful people in the middle of an international battlefield.
“Syria is an international battlefield.”