17 Oct 2017

From Syria to Porirua

2:06 pm on 17 October 2017

Meet the refugee rapper who rhymes to remember.


Sharif King has been shot at, punched so hard his teeth have shattered and had an iron bar forced all the way through his leg.

The 21-year-old now studies IT programming at Whitireia, a few minutes north of Wellington.

Sharif was 16 when civil war broke out in Syria. He and his mother were living in Moadamiyah, a rebellious suburb of the capital, Damascus.

Moadamiyah was gassed with toxic sarin in 2013, according to the UN, and was subject to a three-year Government siege that destroyed much of its infrastructure and caused its population to dwindle.

The gas attack killed anywhere between 281 and 1729 people. As it overcame its victims, they suffered from convulsions, coughed up blood and foamed at the mouth. Images of the dead wrapped in white sheets in the street provoked international outrage towards President Bashar al-Assad.

The Wireless spoke to Sharif through an Arabic translator, provided by Red Cross, in the living room of his new home in Porirua.

“I remember I was walking with some friends and we were shot at by soldiers. Some of my friends were hit. I only avoided being hit because I hid behind a car,” he recalls.

Sharif doesn’t know why he and his friends were targeted: “Maybe it was because we were a group of people together?”

A short time later he was arrested by government soldiers on a bus. Again, he doesn’t know why.

“When you travel on the bus, you are stopped at many checkpoints and the army checks your ID. If they have any doubts about you, they will arrest you,” he says.

“Maybe it’s because I was from Moadamiyah. If there is fighting or explosions in an area, they try to check everyone from this area. They persecute the people from this area in order to keep them silent.”

While in custody, he was beaten and tortured for any information he might have - information he didn’t have.

He was kept in the dark for three days until suddenly being released. Friends of his weren’t so lucky. His mother didn’t expect to see him again.

“It was very hard - if a criminal commits a crime, that person knows how long they might have to stay in prison. But if you are arrested for no reason and it is a political issue, you don’t know what will happen. I thought I might die in the prison. I had no idea,” he says.

“We knew people who had been kept in there and they were never seen again. My mum was so happy and she said we had to pack up our important things straight away and leave to Lebanon.”

And so a teenage Sharif and his mother headed to the border, hoping for the best.

In Syria, men must serve in the military from 18. Those caught trying to evade can be imprisoned and tortured.

Syrian army soldiers patrol an area near Aleppo.

Syrian army soldiers patrol an area near Aleppo. Photo: AFP

Sharif was yet to serve and his identification papers showed as much. Yet, another stroke of luck fell his way.

“I was so lucky the soldiers at the checkpoint didn’t fully check my papers.”

And so he and his mother moved to Lebanon.

“Lebanon was difficult. There was no war, no shooting, no explosions, but the Lebanese army persecuted us. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees aren’t respected and [are] looked at as dirty people. If you go to work, they don’t pay you what they should. If you are walking in the street and someone knows you’re from Syria, they come up and hit you,” he says.

“Sometimes I wish I had died in Syria. Better than being persecuted in Lebanon.”

Sharif turned to writing rap music as a vessel for his pain: “It was the only way I could express my feelings because I didn’t have anyone to complain to. I wanted to explain the way I was feeling through music.”

The first verse he wrote was about Syria and wanting to unite the country.

He says rap is dismissed by most in the Middle East: “Even a few years ago it was something new and people criticised it and made fun of the people who rap. But a lot of young people prefer the new style.

Even my mum didn’t like it at first and said I was acting like a child, but she’s encouraging me now.”

His favourite rappers reflect this delayed zeitgeist - they are 50 Cent and Eminem.

Sharif lived in Lebanon for less than a year, before the UN’s refugee agency programme granted him asylum in New Zealand.

“When I found out - you can’t imagine - it was the best news I had ever received in my life. I started looking up everything about New Zealand. I had never heard of it.”

A year and a half ago, he and his mother shifted temporarily to the resettlement centre in Auckland: “It was like opening a present I had been hoping for for ages.”

While he was there, musician Neil Finn paid a visit.

“This man kept talking to me but I didn’t know who we was. He was asking about my music and wanted to hear some of my songs. I found out later he was a famous New Zealand musician.”

Finn liked Sharif’s rhymes and invited him to perform at a concert at Auckland's Silo Park celebrating the arrival of the first 1000 Syrian refugees.

“I was always trying very hard to get people to listen to my music in Lebanon. Here, in New Zealand, I didn’t do anything and suddenly I was performing in front of hundreds of people.”

Sharif still writes whenever he feels low, but admits that’s not so often anymore. The inspiration doesn’t flow as quickly in New Zealand.

“Recently I felt lonely and started to write about that, but I can write about Syria easily. It has to be a very strong feeling for me to be able to write the words,” he says.

He is also waiting until his English improves so he can begin mixing the language with Arabic.

He thinks he’s adapting well to life in a new country, although some things take time. He’s been able to buy a car and loves working on it while he’s not studying.

“I have met some friends at Whitireia and they help me with my English. I also already know every Syrian around here,” he says.

“I like it here because people respect everyone.”

He still misses his home, though: “I miss playing in the streets in Syria and my family. I want to go back one day, but only if things went back to the way they were before.”