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How an American Mom and a Syrian Refugee Found Grace & Friendship After a Chance Grocery Store Meeting


Heval and Mary Helen at event
 IJR Opinion is an opinion platform and any opinions or information put forth by contributors are exclusive to them and do not represent the views of IJR.

It is, as they say, a long story to explain my standing at the checkout counter of an Iraqi grocery store surrounded by a group of Middle Eastern men and three women in hijab in Atlanta, Georgia last September. After all, I am a white, Southern, female, Episcopalian English professor raised in a staunchly Republican family.

As everyone chattered away in Arabic that day, I stood there in my high heels, short dress, and bare head wondering who these people thought I was and why I was there. It was a little scary. I was tagging along with two Syrian refugee women I had recently met, and I had no reason to believe these folks would consider me a friend.

Credit: Mary Helen O'Connor

One of the men looked directly at me and asked me in English, “Are you from a resettlement agency?” I replied, “No, actually, I am just an English professor and I am helping these women buy groceries.” He gently warned me, “Be careful of these Syrian refugees. They are great cooks and you will gain weight hanging around them.” We all laughed politely, but I was still a little wary. I was definitely the outsider.

But what began as a strange and awkward encounter in a little grocery store has blossomed into a partnership that could inform all of us trying to find common ground in the middle of the political maelstrom brought on by President Trump’s executive order cutting the number of refugees admitted to our country; halting refugee resettlement from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya; and stopping visa holders, dual citizens, and permanent residents from coming and going to the United States.

Credit: Mary Helen O'Connor

That bold young man who asked me why I was helping those Syrian refugees turns out to be a refugee himself, a graduate of the university where I teach, and now a cardiology fellow at Emory.

Dr. Heval Kelli was buying groceries with his mother when he spied me trying to help my new Syrian friends find halal meat. He later confided in me that he actually wondered if I might be an intelligence officer investigating newly arrived refugees.

Credit: Mary Helen O'Connor

As it turns out, this southern, white, Christian professor and this Kurdish, Syrian, Muslim cardiologist have found a lot more common ground than difference.

Here is how Heval describes our chance meeting...

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As I left the store, I thought I had just experienced déjà vu. Something about that white lady and the Syrian women she was helping reminded me of my past. My own family arrived in the U.S. as Syrian refugees two weeks after 9/11.

When people see my current status as a cardiology fellow working in a prestigious hospital and living in a middle-class neighborhood, they don’t see all the suffering and pain my family went through to be here.

We had a very good life in Syria. My father was a prominent lawyer. My mother did not have to work and spent all of her time as a homemaker and mother. My brother and I were honor students in private schools.

Credit: Dr. Heval Kelli

One day the police stormed our home. They broke down the front door and pushed my mother against the wall. I reflexively jumped to protect her, but the next thing I remember was lying on the floor, dizzy from the impact of the butt of an AK-47 handle to my head. Blood was running down my face, but I could see enough to spy my brother hiding under the bed.

I was 11 years old.

The police demolished our house and stepped on my Atari. They kept screaming at my mother and asking her about my father's documents. The more they screamed, the more she cried. Because my mother could not provide any information, they eventually left.

We found out later from my uncle they arrested my father because he refused to collaborate and work against his own people. As members of the Kurdish minority, we had few choices. We had to abandon everything in Syria. We literally ran for our lives.

Just like the refugees you see escaping in boats on the news, we paid smugglers to get us out — and we were lucky that we were able to leave. This all happened back in the 1990s before the war really had erupted. It was the first time the police had ever come to our home for anything.

Now, this is the norm for any Syrian. And nobody knows who is fighting who, as the situation has become very complicated. I can only imagine that a hit from the butt of an AK-47 is a soft slap compared to the horrific torture people are now experiencing in my hometown.

After we got out of Syria, we stayed as refugees mainly in camps in Germany. After 2 years of “extreme vetting,” we were granted visas to America and settled in Atlanta, Georgia. Although we were elated at the prospect of a new life in the U.S., we were nervous how we would be received in the days after that horrible attack. One of our German friends told us to wear shirts with American symbols and hang American flags on all of our doors and windows.

We received all kinds of misguided advice. We had no friends and no family. We didn’t dare leave our house the first two days. One afternoon, a white lady knocked on our door accompanied by three older white ladies. Complete strangers, they introduced themselves as members of All Saints Episcopal Church. They directed me to their van where I unloaded bags and bags full of clothes and food.

Heval's arrival photo when he first came to the U.S. Credit: Dr. Heval Kelli

They smiled and hugged us, providing comfort despite the fact that we were complete strangers. Arabic-speaking Middle Easterners were regarded with suspicion and fear in those days after the terrorist attack on the U.S. My family was shocked to be so warmly welcomed.

My story is a parable for anyone interested in providing solutions to the historically unprecedented global refugee crisis. Banning refugees will only provide motivation to those who seek to destroy freedom and democracy.

Being good neighbors, welcoming strangers, and caring for those who have been persecuted will result in peace and prosperity.

Because of both of these women — my old friend and my new friend — great things have happened to me and many other refugees. I started my life in America as a dishwasher...

Heval stands at dishwasher where he once worked in the U.S. Credit: Avery White

...and am now a cardiologist thanks to the support of many who invested in my family as we started a new life here.

Heval Kelli at the Clarkston Community Health Center in Clarkston, Georgia. Credit: Emory University

My new professor friend and I have started an organization to provide mentoring support to refugee and immigrant students dreaming of graduating from college. My life is truly the realization of the American dream. In the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, my family was the “tired, poor, huddled masses” seeking the “blessings of liberty” when we arrived here.

Credit: Dr. Heval Kelli

The United States of America was built by the labor of immigrants including the ancestors of our new president. Now is not the time to surrender to the mythical narrative of fear and misinformation produced by an ill-advised executive order instituted to secure votes under the guise of national security.

It is time for us to be good neighbors, acknowledge our fear of the unfamiliar, and invest in our own secure futures by supporting efforts to eradicate discrimination, persecution, and radicalization of all kinds.

Dr. Heval Kelli is a Katz Foundation Fellow in Preventative Cardiology at Emory University. Dr. Mary Helen O’Connor is a Senior Faculty Associate in the Office of International Initiatives at Georgia State University. They are co-founders of www.mina-usa.com.

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