Mahmoud fled Syria after the army tried to force him to join the fighting. He took a boat from Turkey to Lesbos, hoping to make his way to Germany, where his fiancee lives. But Mahmoud got stranded in Idomeni, a town on the Greek-FYROM border which, until May 2016, was the site of Europe's largest informal refugee camp, holding about 8,000 refugees when Greek police started clearing the camp on May 24, 2016.
Mahmoud was moved to a new camp in Oraiokastro, together with his three friends - Basil, Sameer and Mustafa, the cofounders of the satirical online television channel refugees.tv. After initial hopes of a speedy relocation to other European countries, the mood among the camp's residents soured as time passed and the authorities were unable to offer any clarity about how long they would remain in Oraiokastro.
That's when Mahmoud, Basil, Sameer and Mustafa decided to organise a talent show.
"We wanted the residents of the camp to forget their worries," says Mahmoud.
"And we also wanted them to remember who they were before the war. With everything that's happened to us, many of us have forgotten who we are and how we used to be back home, when we lived a relatively normal life before the war took over. We lost our way. At the very least, we wanted to put a smile on people's faces."
"In Syria, we have this show, Arabs Got Talent. I always wished to take part in a show like that. I never thought I'd be a judge," Mahmoud adds.
The four friends began work on a makeshift TV studio. A volunteer donated a speaker and a microphone, they borrowed a table from the camp school for the judges to sit behind. Camping lights distributed in Idomeni were used as a buzzer to signal to contestants when their performance was deemed not good enough to move on to the next round.
"Most people in the camp were excited and enthusiastic about the show and wanted to see it," says Mahmoud. "There were some who were a bit upset. Conditions in the camp were not the greatest - we had many problems and people were suffering. Some people did not understand why we would be singing and dancing in this situation. But for us, it was a release."
On August 9, the first round of auditions got under way. These are some of the contestants and their stories.
Rami, 20, student, Aleppo
"I left Syria one year and four months ago. I left because of the war and also because I have many dreams which I want to realise. I was in the camp [in Oraiokastro] for eight months. I've now been relocated to Barcelona and I've started to learn Spanish. Perhaps I can get a job as a translator here. My dream is actually to become a doctor.
I started rapping after a traumatic experience, when I lost my girlfriend in a bomb attack. She always wanted me to rap. I wanted to get involved in the [talent] show because, through my music, I feel I can express what my experience as a refugee is like. It's been a tough journey. Sometimes, I really hate it when people look at me like a refugee or a number - not as an actual person. It makes me feel like a nobody. But I guess that's normal. You can always find good people and bad people in this life."
Maher, 12, student, Homs
"I left Syria on January 5, 2015, and arrived in Greece on March 1, 2016. I was living in Camp Diavata for three months - the standard of living there was terrible. Before that, I was in Idomeni for four months. Now, I am in Athens, staying in a house and waiting for a response from the European relocation programme.
I decided to participate [in the talent show] because I wanted to prove to people that, even though we are refugees and have been broken down in so many different ways, we still have the will to live and possess talent - so do not shut the doors in our faces."
Muhanned, 20, carpenter, Homs
"I left Syria, my home, two years ago because of the war. It was a trying journey. I spent six months in Oraiokastro and it was tough living there. I'm a singer and I joined the programme to show off my talent. It was an amazing experience."
Ismail, 33, print artist, Raqqa
"I left home because of all the injustices forced upon us by different sources - the Assad regime, ISIL and even parts of the Free Syrian Army were cruel to us. I'm now in Athens, but I have been selected to go to Switzerland. I don't know when I'll be going, I'm simply waiting. I was in Oraiokastro for seven months and now I've been taken to a hotel in northern Greece.
I've loved to sing since I was young and have always wished to participate in a talent programme, like the ones they host in Lebanon or any other Arab country. But I was never fortunate enough to do so because I never had the means."
Hleil, 45, painter, Raqqa
"I am married with four children: a son and three girls. I left Syria with my family after a barrel bomb destroyed our home in June 2013. Life in [Oraiokastro] camp was very hard. Thankfully, now I am in the relocation programme and I will be moving to France soon."
Waeel, 22, administrative assistant, Homs
"I left Syria because of the war and how difficult life had become. Things have been difficult with so much instability, but I hope that life will give me a better chance in the future. I spent seven months in Oraiokastro. I think the word 'tent' is enough to describe the standard of life there, it was very bad. I am now in a camp near Veria. I'm waiting to move to another country where I want to build a future with stability and safety.
I chose to participate in the talent show to entertain myself and others. I've played the drums since I was in the boy scouts in Syria. I can play drums on anything solid. Being in the talent show was a good experience, which challenged me and made me feel joy at the same time."
On August 2016, more than 2,000 people voted on Facebook to choose a winner out of four finalists. Muhanned received the most votes and took home the show's prize: a new smartphone. After living in Oraiokastro for six months, Muhanned was moved to a hotel in northern Greece where he is still waiting to be placed in a different European country.
After the show
Early this year, Oraiokastro camp's residents were evacuated. Many of them were moved to hotels across Greece. Two of Mahmoud's co-organisers have now made their way to Germany and the Netherlands - both without help from the authorities. Basil recently received the news that he would be relocated to Norway.
But like many others, Mahmoud is still waiting to find out what will happen to him and is growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress.
"I just want to continue with my life, earn a living and start a family one day - just live like a normal person," he says. "I can't say I really want to stay in Europe any more. It's clear we are not wanted and I've had such a bad experience. My dream would be to be accepted as a refugee in Canada. Europe in its entirety has failed us. Poor Greece is just a piece on the chessboard."
Mahmoud thinks Refugees Got Talent did manage to lift the mood at the camp briefly. "I think eventually the show had quite a big impact - probably more on ourselves than on the outside world. People got some of their confidence back. I learned guitar afterwards and I'm trying to write songs," he says. "After filming the rounds [of auditions] we would sit around and [Ismail] would lead the singing. Everyone was smiling and happy. It's a good feeling to know we played a part in making that happen. We brought a bit of dignity back to the people."
But it's a slim silver lining amid continued uncertainty. "Somehow, it feels like this refugee crisis is a scene in a movie and Europe likes to keep replaying it, watching from afar rather than finding a solution," he says.
"I'm afraid I've totally lost my future."
Source: Al Jazeera (with edits)
* Thanks Margaret S. for the article!