Letter from Thessaloniki ‘Every Arab refugee in the world knows this song’

Composed by a refugee who fled Syria, ‘Safar na Ala Europa’ tells a common story.

One afternoon in August, a group of 12 schoolchildren gathered for a music lesson in a converted shipping container in an abandoned paper-towel factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, Greece. Most were from Syria. The girls sat on one side of the narrow aisle running down the length of the classroom, the boys on the other. They ranged in age from about six to 13.

They took turns coming up to the front of the classroom to sing a song of their choice. Their teacher, a furniture decorator from Damascus, accompanied them on the oud, a traditional Persian and Middle Eastern string instrument.

Some sang nonsense rhymes in English, or garbled renditions of the ABC’s; Most sang in Arabic. About half an hour into the lesson, a boy of about eight stood up and started to sing a song every student appeared to know by heart.

Most of the class joined in. So did one of the school’s headmasters, leaning in the doorway to observe the lesson. I don’t speak Arabic but could pick out the names of European countries in the lyrics. When the lesson ended, I asked the headmaster, a resident of the camp who was a journalism student before the war, about the song.

He smiled and said it was a very sad song written by a Syrian refugee, which tells the story of the refugees’ journey to Europe. He pulled it up for me on YouTube using my phone.

How come all the kids know the lyrics? I asked.

The song is called Safarna Ala Europa, I learned, which means “Our Journey to Europe.” It was written by Nidal Karam, a Syrian refugee living in the Netherlands.

If you don’t understand Arabic, the recording, which has dance-y, synthetic instrumentation and a reverb-heavy vocal track, sounds like an upbeat pop song. But this impression is belied by the profound sorrow of the lyrics:

We suffered so much, so much, on our journey to Europe

We entered many countries

I can’t count them all

I can’t count them all

From one train to another, the eyes did not rest

My journey was all on loans, I can’t pay it back

I lived in Syria, at the edge of my nerves, my brother

Afraid of a bomb that would fall and kill us …

This one wants Belgium; this one wants Germany; I am going to Sweden

Oh Syria, gather us, we’re tired of exile

It’s our fault, we will repay your debts.


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