One Hand, One Heart

Art by Laila Ajjawi. Image via.

In the dead of winter, the Khalil* household in South Providence is full of life. Ali*, the father, swings the door open to welcome visitors, as the youngest son lobs a blue balloon in the air, tripping over tea tables and rug corners along the way. He was born just 40 days before his family had to flee the rapidly escalating violence in their home of Damascus, Syria.

The balloon pops loudly enough to fill the entire two-bedroom apartment, the blue rubber shrinking as everyone in the room retracts their vibrant hearts into the caves of their shoulders. Assala* and her two eldest sons jerk then stare blankly at their past. “That was the pop of one balloon. Can you imagine what the sound of a missile would do to us?” Ali says to a translator in Arabic. Loud sounds, like fireworks on the Fourth of July, provoke memories of their life-threatening last days in Syria.

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It was the end of Ramadan in 2012. Since Ali had to drive a relative to Amman, Jordan, his brother had decided to take Assala and the children to a nearby farm for a picnic. Just a couple of blocks into the trip, their car was stopped by a tank on the road. They turned around, but found that they were blocked from behind as well. The family was stuck between two warring tanks, bullets flying overhead, bloody faces in the cars in front and behind theirs. Four of Assala’s crying children were frantically attempting to hide beneath her as her 40-day-old infant screamed in her arms.

Ali remembers receiving a call from his sobbing wife who was trying to remain calm enough to tell him about what had happened with the tanks. It was in that moment that he realized he and his family had to leave their home. He assured his wife he would find a job and a place for them to live in Amman, and he asked her to arrange passports for the children. In just 15 days, Assala and the children were on their way. What was usually a two hour drive took about a day. Every couple of minutes, another tank blocked the road or a government officer would demand to search the car.

After living in Amman for eight months, Ali had to prove that his family was seeking asylum in order for his children to be able to continue their schooling and for him to remain eligible for a job. He registered with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a common method of  proving asylum-seeking status for Syrian refugees. Four and a half years later, Ali and his family received a phone call from the IOM announcing they were eligible to go to the United States. Ali had never imagined he would leave Syria, and even when he was living in Amman, he always thought he would go back to Syria once conditions improved.

“Of course many families wish to come to America, where dreams come true and it’s a great, safe place. However wanting to go to America is different from being forced to make that decision,” says Ali.

Between accepting the offer in February 2016 and flying to the States in September 2016, the IOM put the Khalils through numerous painstaking interviews and health screenings. With each question, the IOM measured the Khalil’s “worthiness” of immigrating to the U.S. One wrong word, and they could immediately be deemed unqualified, and their offer revoked.

“On the day that I left, I looked at my parents’ faces and I told them, ‘It’s goodbye for now, I don’t know if I’ll see you ever again,’” he said. In five cars, all of their relatives drove them to the airport and said goodbye.

“In the shade of the waq waq tree” (2014) by Zanny Begg. Image via.

The family of seven flew to Ukraine, then New York, then drove 10 hours to Warwick, then finally made it to their placement in Providence, totalling 36 hours of travel. The small house and shaky staircase did not bother them too much because Cheryl Al-Sasah, the Co-Founder of AHOPE (Americans Helping Others ProspEr), had welcomed them with a hot halal meal. “They work with one hand and one heart,” Ali says of AHOPE. “In spite of there being many people working for this organization with many different religious backgrounds, with many different histories, they all unite together for humanitarian reasons.”

Although the Khalils recall being exhausted upon their arrival, Al-Sasah remembers them as upbeat, energetic, and extremely friendly. “Each family is different – some burst into tears, some don’t,” she says. As Al-Sasah and her team left the Khalil house that night, Ali ran down the stairs outside to give them gifts. She remembers being surprised: “Here you are coming from losing everything, and you’re going to give us gifts.”

In the days that followed, Ali took his family to Roger Williams Park and felt like he was young again, safely in nature with his family, looking at the beautiful ponds. He quickly made friends on a local soccer team and began volunteering with AHOPE as a part of the Setup Team. He sees American people as friendly neighbors who say “as-salaam-alaikum,” or “peace be upon you,” to his hijab-wearing wife when they see her on her walks.

He says there is a big difference between what he sees on a daily basis when talking to Americans and what he sees in politics. While today’s legislation seems to be pinning Muslims and non-Muslims against each other, he sees people loving each other. He hopes that future political decisions will reflect what is happening in communities like his, a reality of peaceful coexistence.

On February 15th, at 6:00 pm, he led the adhan (call for prayer) outside the Smithfield Mosque in Providence for an event called “Standing with our Muslim Neighbors and Children.” About 300 people of different religions huddled together. Al-Sasah says many of the people around her cried because they were so moved by Ali’s recitation. Eyes closed, they stood together to hold candles and listen to Ali’s call for peace with “one hand, one heart.”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity

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Donia is an Iranian American second-year from Los Angeles.

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