Azad dropped out of school after his mother had a stroke and became paralyzed. His father, who worked in construction, struggled to pay the family’s bills. So Azad left the eighth grade to become a construction worker too. One teacher at school asked him, before he left, what he wanted to be as an adult, and Azad remembers how much the teacher beamed when he said that he wanted to be a teacher.
His mother died five years after her stroke. Despite being born in Qamishlo to parents who were also born in Qamishlo, regardless of the thirty years he lived in Syria, he was never granted citizenship because of his Kurdish identity. He left in 2014. His father stayed behind.
Today Azad lives with his wife and three children in a refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He repairs cell phones in a store inside the camp. The strip of shops draws steady foot traffic, including people who leave Erbil, the capital, in search of cheap goods and services. But when the customers are gone, the members of Azad’s band, Azadi, squeeze past the papers and wires to take out their instruments. They rehearse for hours. “I feel we complete each other,” he says. He is especially proud to be teaching Mizgin, the female singer in the group, how to play the saz—an instrument most often played by men.
When the camp gets noisy, he thinks back to a place he would visit on the outskirts of Qamishlo, along the Jaghjagh River which flows through Turkey and Syria. “When I went there, I forgot all the concerns that soured my life.”