Hassan—artist name “Hassan Al Shex”—always wanted to be a singer, but he is the only person in his family who sings. He likes sad songs, Kurdish and old.

After working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, Hassan left Iraq for the United States. That last day in 2012 was hot. “It’s hard to describe,” he says. “I cried a lot. I can never forget it.”

First he said goodbye to his mother, then his brother, sister, nephew, and niece. His father had passed away about 10 years earlier.

Hassan would call his mother nearly every day from his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. When ISIS attacked Shingal (Sinjar) in August 2014, Hassan was relieved to get word that his family escaped the massacre by driving to Zakho, a city in the north.

But then one day in 2015, Hassan’s mother stopped picking up his calls. “Nobody would answer me,” he says. He was in agony, wondering what had happened.

Finally, his older sister broke the bad news: his mother had died of a heart attack. She was 62. Devastated, Hassan wanted to go back for her burial, but he didn’t have the proper documents to travel. It still pains him to think about it.

He remembers confessing to her years ago, after being an interpreter, that he wanted to be a singer. It would have been completely natural for her to discourage him from his musical aspirations, saying that it wasn’t practical or stable. But instead she said, “Okay. Sing.”

Hassan’s remaining family now lives in Germany. Working in a facility where he inspects cold medicine, he hopes to find a job related to music. He still wants to write songs and to be famous.

“The reason I sing is because I miss my family, I miss my mom.” He adds, “I sing to myself when nobody is with me.”