A Long Way From Aleppo


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Scenes from everyday life in Aleppo before the war. Photos provided by the Faris family.

Written by Tom Gordon // Produced in conjunction with BirminghamWatch

It has been a warm day in early August 2012, in Aleppo, the historic, cosmopolitan Syrian city where you work and live. This day is part of the Muslim month of Ramadan, in which the faithful fast from sunup to sunset. Now the sun is setting, and your oldest son Fouad and two of your daughters, Rama and Lydia, are out in the walled garden of your elegant, 14-room home, getting ready for iftar, the meal that will break the day’s fast.

Then, overhead, without warning, without invitation, comes a whining, whooshing sound. Seconds later, the ground shudders as a projectile lands outside the wall and explodes. Sounds of gunfire follow. Your children run into the house. Lydia, who is 8, is crying and screaming for her mother, your wife Latifa.

12Before the month is out, you, Latifa, Lydia, your other son, Khaldoun, and your baby daughter Caroline will have left your bloodied, battered country. By September, Fouad will have left and Rama will have joined family members, among them your mother and father, who have fled to Turkey.

Your name is Ahmad Faris, you are now 52 years old, and you used to be a well-off, well-known and well-respected surgeon. Now you and your family are among the approximately 5 million Syrians who have left Syria since the civil war’s start in 2011, and you hope that one day, you will practice medicine again.

In the meantime, you, Latifa, Khaldoun, Rama, Lydia and Caroline are now making your home in a place where, on the August day that brought the terror of war over the rooftop of your home in Aleppo, young, high-school-age men are getting ready to don helmets and shoulder pads and practice a war-like game that you still do not fully understand.

This place is Hoover, Alabama.

Since 2011, the plight of Syrians fleeing their shattered homeland has been in the news repeatedly. We’ve seen desperate families on decrepit boats in the Mediterranean—more than 80,000 Syrians, nearly the population of Hoover, crossed that sea last year. We’ve seen images of crying children outside rows of United Nations-furnished tents in refugee camps in Turkey or Jordan, or faces pressed against border barriers in eastern Europe.

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Scenes from everyday life in Aleppo before the war. Photos provided by the Faris family.

We’ve also seen desperate faces, wounded bodies and battered buildings during the recent fighting in Aleppo, as forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad used barrel bombs and other lethal weapons to drive forces opposed to Assad’s regime from the eastern half of the city. The recent fighting has killed or displaced thousands. But the overall ranks of the displaced also include those who left in 2012 when things were starting to fall apart.

Some of them were physicians, like Faris, and he was not the last to go. By November 2015, most of Aleppo’s doctors (had) “either fled, been detained, or killed, many as a direct result of the incessant barrel bomb attacks,” according to Physicians for Human Rights.

Because they had some money, the necessary documents and also because Latifa, by design, had given birth to Khaldoun, Lydia and Caroline in the U.S., Faris and his family have not had to endure the dire circumstances that so many of their fellow Syrians have faced. But that does not mean life was easy for them before they left Syria or that it has been a lollipop since they settled in the U.S. and Ahmad and Latifa were granted asylum.

For one thing, Ahmad and Latifa are wondering if, with Donald Trump in the White House and his tough stand on immigration from Syria and other majority-Muslim countries, they will begin to feel less welcome here and find limits on what they hope to achieve.

But even with that new sense of uneasiness, they are glad, particularly for their children, that they are here. And because of the good things available to their children here, they cannot see ever returning to live in Syria.

14“Noooo,  no, no, no,” was how Latifa put it earnestly early on the morning of Feb. 15. It was the Presidents Day holiday, and she was sitting in the living room of the townhouse south of the Riverchase Galleria that she and her family have called home for about three years. “I don’t care about myself, (but) my children, no, no, I can’t.”

“Look, I’m honest with you,” she said. “We have good healthcare for them, the best education and everything is good for them.”

Latifa could have said the same thing about other states in America. So why did she and her family end up here, in Alabama? Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that Khaldoun, Latifa’s oldest child, was born 60 miles northeast of Hoover,  in the university town of Jacksonville. Before his birth, Latifa and a friend had spent a day shopping, dining and looking around the Birmingham area, and she had been favorably impressed.

“I remember that day because it was very nice,” she says. “This is the first time I had come to America. The picture of Birmingham is still in my mind. I like it…”

That picture would figure prominently in the Faris family’s decision to settle in Hoover.

On that February morning, as Ahmad and Latifa discussed their past and present, from upstairs there were sounds of laughter and chatter from Lydia and two of her pals who had spent the night. Khaldoun, now 14 and a freshman at Spain Park High, was not home, having spent the night at a friend’s house.   

Lydia, who attends Berry Middle School, had turned 13 the night before. On this morning after, her younger sister Caroline, now five and a kindergartner at Riverchase Elementary, had come downstairs to give a detailed account of how she and her dad had helped Lydia celebrate: a “weird” movie (an episode of the TV series “Haters Back Off!”), and a trip to the Cheesecake Factory. Sporting a tiny American flag pin that she had found on the floor of her brother’s room, Caroline said her birthday was June 2.

15“We’re going to Chuck E. Cheese to celebrate, and after that we’re going to a beach!” she said.

Such simple wishes, commonplace for so many kids here. But the treats Caroline has planned for her birthday are far outside the reach of so many other dispersed Syrians, like the refugees now living a limbo existence between their war-ravaged homeland and a final destination, and it’s far from certain they would be available to the Farises if they returned to Syria.

Not long after his arrival in Hoover, Ahmad learned he was a wanted man, not for any political reasons but for his medical abilities. Rama, on the journey that would ultimately take her to Turkey and later a flight to the U.S., had come to the Jordanian border with her uncle, Faris’ brother Imad. But there, the guards said they would not let her and Imad pass until Ahmad showed up. Before leaving Syria, Faris had been quietly treating patients with gunshot or shrapnel wounds, regardless of their politics, and he now is certain that a jail cell would have awaited him if he had returned home.

To break the border impasse, Imad and Rama hired a negotiator, a man who knew the guards because he had driven many times across the frontier. At the negotiator’s request, Imad came up with a wad of cash, and he and Rama were allowed to resume their journey.

After about two years in Turkey, Rama arrived in Hoover in November 2014. To her delight, she learned earlier this year that she had been approved for a green card, which allows her to live and work permanently in the U.S. Now she plans to go to college to study computer engineering, and she has been working on her English while earning some school money as the manager of the Estée Lauder and Clinique counters in the Galleria Macy’s cosmetics department.

Like Ahmad, Latifa now has a green card. While she had been studying law in Syria, here in Alabama, she manages a Cricket Wireless store in Irondale, where she is on the job six to seven days a week. Ahmad worked for more than a year as a physician’s assistant for a Syrian-born doctor, Basel Refai, in Alexander City, but he has spent a lot of time studying, test-taking and unsuccessfully applying for residencies and medical fellowships in Alabama. Now, in what will be a boost for him professionally and for the family economically, he is slated to start work as a surgical assistant at Chicago’s Swedish Covenant Hospital in May.

5Latifa and Ahmad also are hoping to take the U.S. citizenship exam sometime after August of this year. By then, they will have met the five-year residency requirement necessary for their citizenship application, and they feel they will know enough English and enough about U.S. history and politics to pass the citizenship test. Nonetheless, they are uneasy because they wonder if the Trump administration is rolling up the nation’s welcome mat.

In what has been a fluid, fast-changing set of circumstances, the president has said he wants to protect the country from foreign terrorists and tighten its immigrant screening process. By early March, he was seeking, through an executive order, to temporarily halt all refugee admissions and temporarily bar the entry of individuals from Syria and five other majority-Muslim countries.

The March order, blocked by a federal judge shortly before it was to take effect, was an effort to replace and scale back a similar order Trump had issued in January. That January directive disrupted travel, caused confusion at airports and prompted protests and court challenges that kept it from being carried out. It also contained an indefinite ban on immigration from Syria, a provision omitted from the March order.

Both executive directives echoed hard-line immigration statements by more than a few American politicians. One of those statements came from Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley after the Paris terror attacks in November 2015, when he said the state would refuse the settlement of any Syrian refugees. The other came from presidential candidate Trump a few weeks later, when he claimed some survey research findings showed “great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population,” and he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

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Lydia, Ahmad, Latifa, Caroline and Khaldoun in their Hoover home

“Let me tell you something,” Faris says. “In my house, if I say to my kids, ‘I am not Muslim, but I will prevent Muslims to come to my house,’ it is a secret message for my kids to hate this Muslim. He (Trump) sent this message. And you know what happened nationwide? All the people who hate immigrants start to say it right now.

“You know, right now we are strangers in Syria,”  he continues. “We do not belong to those people… The culture is different from (before) right now …

“But with Trump (in office), we’ve started to think, ‘Are we strangers here?’”

Though of late Faris has become cautious about volunteering his first name and Syrian origins to strangers—a patient in Alexander City once asked him if he was from New Jersey—he and his family have not really felt much like strangers since being here. They obviously have had to make adjustments, including getting a better handle on the language (Latifa spoke little English when she arrived here); no longer being alarmed by certain sounds, as Khaldoun was their first December here when he heard the whirring of a helicopter bringing Santa to a Christmas festival at Moss Rock Preserve; finding substitutes for Syrian treats such as vanilla ice cream with pistachios in the middle and a meat pie known as fatayer, and doing without the big multi-course dinners with friends or family members that were a recurring part of peacetime life in their big house.

1Perhaps the biggest adjustments have been economic and psychological. When they first arrived here, the Farises had some spending money, but Ahmad did not want to spend a lot of it on household things. For a time, he thought things might settle down back home, particularly if the Obama administration took action against the Assad regime for crossing a “red line” by its use of chemical weapons. The line was crossed, but the war continued, and now the Farises are basically living from paycheck to paycheck, and Khaldoun, Lydia and Caroline’s health coverage comes from Medicaid.

There were times in the early going when Ahmad and Latifa cut back on their portions of meals so the kids could eat their fill. From time to time,  Ahmad says he reminds Latifa not to skip lunch and take some food from home to her job, and she and Ahmad still penny pinch where they can. Back in peacetime Aleppo, they had no need to skip a meal, and Ahmad had no need to supplement his income by taking a job at a fast food restaurant. Here, he applied for work at a pizza joint. Whereas some university administrators told him he was too old for a fellowship or a residency, the pizza joint management told him he was overqualified.

“I’m very sad for him,” Latifa said on that Presidents Day morning while looking at her husband. “It’s very hard for him. Do you know he had (a) hospital in Aleppo? He had a big office. He had everything.

4“Here, he doesn’t have anything. If he needed to do anything in Aleppo, he could do it. If I went shopping or something, everybody (said), ‘Ohh, you’re the wife of Dr. Ahmad Faris.’” Over here, she says, “some of the people do not know him.”

“All the people,” Ahmad said, chuckling, and his light laugh was another reminder of what he lost in Syria and has not yet regained here.

“He is very different,” Latifa says. “Before, he was very funny. Now…all the time, he’s thinking. Before, when he went bed, he was like, gohh (asleep). Now he wakes up in the night. I look at him. I know. He’s thinking about (the) children…rent, everything. He didn’t think about this in Syria, Aleppo. He didn’t think about anything. What he needed, he had.”

Faris’ daughter Rama, who with her brother Fouad is one of two children from her father’s first marriage, also agrees. She recalls days as a young girl when she would go with her father to his clinic and he would give her money to buy herself a treat at a nearby ice cream shop. The clinic where Faris would see patients on afternoons and evenings most weekdays is now rubble, he says. And Martini Hospital, where he performed many operations, has sustained heavy damage, according to news reports.    

While Latifa and her husband have started to worry about having to conduct themselves carefully in this time of increased political divide in this country, their worries do not see6m to be shared by their children.

Rama, now 21, has seen social media videos depicting hostility toward Muslims in parts of the U.S., but she has yet to see or feel that sentiment here. Rama knew nothing about Alabama when she came here, and she worried at first that some people would consider her a terrorist once she told them she was from Syria. But now she says 99 percent of those she has encountered have been “the sweetest people I’ve met in my life.”

Many of those sweet people have been her customers at Macy’s.

“All the time when I talk to them,” Rama says, “they will be asking me, ‘Ohh, you’ve got an accent, do you mind if I ask you, you are from where?’ I’ll be like, ‘I’m from Syria.’ They will say, ‘Ohh, God bless you.’ Some of them cry. Some of them, they just hug me. Some will say, ‘I hope your country will be better.’ Others say, ‘I’m glad I see you here, not over there.’

“I’ve never had some people tell me, ‘Ohh, you’re from Syria, I’m not going to buy from you.’ Never at all.’’

7Back in August 2012, a few days after the explosions and gunfire rattled her Ramadan evening, Rama was standing outside the Faris home, waiting for the bus to take her to high school, when another explosion broke the early morning silence and pushed a large black cloud into the sky. Though frightened, she boarded her bus, but more fright filled her heart when the bus passed by the site of the explosion. There, she saw debris, shattered dwellings, people crying.

By then, out of concern for her safety, Rama’s sister Lydia had only been to her second-grade school for about a month of the school year. Due to his own safety concerns, her father had cut back his work hours. There also had been a day when her brother Khaldoun had come back from his school in tears because of the gunfire that had forced him and his fellow students to dive to the floor of their bus.

Nothing like that has happened here, in Alabama’s biggest metropolitan area, a place they now call home. That home feeling is why, when Ahmad begins his job in Chicago, the family will remain here.  That home feeling was on Ahmad’s mind during an interview last fall, when his job prospects were less certain.

3“You know, when we arrived here,” he said, “I was thinking in my mind there are two ways to be here: to be as a Muslim and put ourselves in our house and put some fence around us and say we are Muslim all the time…or to be part of this society.”

What the Farises chose to do is obvious to anyone who visits their home or spends time with their  kids. It was obvious sometime back when someone asked Ahmad where he would stand if war broke out between the U.S. and Mexico.

“I will stand with this country because I am part of this country now,” was how Faris says he responded. More recently, he said he would take the same stance even if the war involved the country of his birth.

“And when I am thinking in that way,” he says, “I tell my kids we will have to start to be a part of this society.” A society, he says, where the law is still paramount.

“We are happy because there is a future (here),” Faris says. “In my country there is no future now.”

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