First Person - First Person: Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli, Syrian refugee

After journeying through America’s refugee relocation system, Heval Mohamed Kelli still has a bright outlook on Syria’s grim crisis

Editor’s note: First Person is a series of commentaries that gives voice to those not commonly heard in Atlanta media.

Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli became a U.S. citizen in 2006, five years after his journey from Kobane, Syria, to Clarkston. He is now a cardiology fellow at Emory University School of Medicine and frequently volunteers to aid refugees.

I haven’t experienced any discrimination in America, not even when I came here right after Sept. 11 — and my last name is Mohamed Kelli. I’m a Kurdish Muslim from Syria. Most Kurds, when politically oppressed, leave the country. My father was a powerful lawyer and the ’90s wasn’t a great time for us to stay around.

I was 10 or 11 when police came to our house searching for things against my dad. They hit my mom for asking about the issue and they hit me for protecting her. Back then, I didn’t understand it all.

We fled to Turkey, and around 1996 we paid smugglers to bring us to Germany. Next thing we knew, we were in Frankfurt Airport. We applied for asylum and every six months had to renew it. When I was a teenager, however, my father worried, if I finished gymnasium school — an extremely tough German junior high system — I wouldn’t be able to go to college or medical school because I wasn’t a permanent resident.

In 2000, a local church helped my family apply for immigration status in the United States. They did background checks for a year, even though we were coming from Europe, which usually makes things easier.

We were interviewed and accepted two months before the Sept. 11 attacks. When the attacks happened, my father said, “We’re not gonna get in.” But we got a call on Sept. 20 saying our visas were ready and we were scheduled to leave in three days. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t know what to do next. So I told my teachers, “I’m going to the U.S.”

At the American embassy they said, “We know your background. We have your story.” And then we’re told, “Welcome to America.” A social worker drove us from the Atlanta airport to our new apartment in Clarkston.

We had no family in America, no friends. When you come to America [as a refugee], you get four or five months of your rent paid [by the federal government]. Around October, I found a job washing dishes at a Mediterranean restaurant in Clarkston.

I washed dishes 30 hours [a week] after school to make money for my parents. My dad was sick [with heart issues], my brother was 14 and couldn’t work, and my mom had a hard time finding a job because she didn’t work in any area besides teaching. Approaching four months in the United States, my mom still didn’t have work and we didn’t have resources to fund the apartment.

After my brother spoke at an All Saints Episcopal Church event, an anonymous family offered to pay next month’s rent. Within that month, mom got a job; I got a second job and a third working at Georgia State University while the HOPE scholarship paid for schooling. That church was the most important part [of the relocation].

All Saints helped my brother get a scholarship to Pace Academy. My brother told his classmate, the daughter of a surgeon, that I was a dishwasher, didn’t know doctors, but wanted to study medicine. The surgeon, Omar Lattouf, actually called me and spoke to me in Arabic and said he wanted to help. I went to his beautiful Buckhead house. With my car, it looked like I’d gone over there to cut his grass, not be mentored by him.

Since then, Lattouf and I have published [medical] papers, traveled for academic presentations, and are currently working on projects with the Georgia Department of Public Health. I graduated Georgia State undergrad, then medical school at Morehouse [College]. Now I’m working a fellowship at Emory, focusing on heart disease prevention. We went from mentorship to sponsorship to partnership. I help out at a clinic established by local physicians in Clarkston a block away from where I originally settled. He and I do community seminars and work helping immigrants and refugees from broken education systems.

I’m no politician, and if I had the answer to tensions in Syria, I’d be sure to tell Obama. But I know America will be extremely involved in rebuilding Syria roughly 20 years from now, repairing the infrastructure of health and education. I want to help.

I’m definitely staying in Atlanta because, as they say in Kurdish, “Whoever taught you the letters, you owe them a book.” I want to serve my community by preventing heart disease. But if asked to go to Syria to help other people, I’d gladly dedicate myself to help others in the name of my country, the United States of America.

What we see in the media, this paranoia of refugees, it’s not true of the real world. When people ask where I’m from and I say, “Syria,” the response I get from Americans is love.

— As told to Sean Keenan