Dilan sings as his fingers move swiftly up and down the neck of his saz. He holds the instrument with comfort and confidence, the way only an object that one has been familiar with for years can be held. He started playing the saz at four years old, despite being unable to see its strings.

Yassin, his father, recalls taking Dilan to doctors in their hometown of Hasakah in northeast Syria. They told him his son had a visual impairment, but that an operation performed in Europe could cure his condition.

Of course, says Yassin, he looked for ways to pay for the procedure. In 2004, he was put in prison for trying to leave Syria without the regime’s permission. He was imprisoned for the same reason again in 2010. Meanwhile, Dilan idled at home. He couldn’t attend school because their province lacked resources for children with special needs.

“I thought music would be good for him,” says Yassin, who is still trying to save money for the operation but also pays for Dilan’s saz and biziq lessons. It is important to him that the family pays instructors, that no one pities him. Now 14, Dilan learns songs by mimicking what he hears on TV, through family friends, and from his phone. He has composed more than a dozen musical pieces.

“I have only one thing,” says Dilan. “Music.”