They carried nothing but a few belongings and painful memories of how their lives used to be and what they had survived. Brothers Khaled and Ebrahem had lost it all to the Syrian civil war, but not their determination to find freedom.
The brothers, who asked that their full names and faces not be used out of concern for family members still living in their home country, are among the 1,500 Syrian refugees the U.S. estimates it has accepted since the start of the conflict four years ago. The Obama administration has said it is willing to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year as European countries grapple with the surge of hundreds of thousands of people from conflict-ridden parts of the Middle East and Africa.
For Khaled and Ebrahem, new lives in America have helped them find the freedom they’ve long sought.
It was six in the morning on October 21, 2013 — the day Khaled and his younger brother Ebrahem would never forget.
Their father woke them abruptly, ordering them to run upstairs quickly and hide in the attic. About a dozen soldiers were approaching their four-bedroom home in Zabadani, near Syria's border with Lebanon. Khaled, then 19, and Ebrahem, then 17, obeyed and waited.
And then a horrible banging sound: “Boom!”
“I ran to him and started crying. I hugged him and kissed him. I knew that was the last time I would see my father,” said Khaled, now 22.
It was a harrowing scene that continues to haunt them: their father, shot dead on the floor lying in a pool of blood. He was 44 years old.
“The government killed him because he was against them,” Ebrahem said. “He worked for the Free Syrian Army,” a rebel group aiming to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
After witnessing countless bombings and deaths, they said their father had made it his duty to warn the people of his city away from approaching danger in an effort to try and save their lives. Yet he could not save himself.
The Harsh Reality
The abrupt murder of the family’s patriarch is only a pixel in the bigger, more complex picture reflecting a daunting reality in Syria.
What began as anti-government protests turned into four years of full-scale civil war between those loyal to and those opposed to the president’s regime as well as jihadist militants from ISIS and other groups. The ensuing fighting and bloodshed have left the country devastated with an estimated 11 million people displaced from their homes and more than 200,000 dead.
Khaled remembers all too well the types of horrors those fleeing Syria face. On three different occasions he said he survived torture at the hands of his government.
Each time, officials interrogated him about his family, political affiliations, and opinions on the current regime.
Khaled said he suffered the consequences for answering truthfully. He was tied down and electrocuted several times then severely beaten.
“Two or three days after you’re still shaking. You can’t eat anything, you can’t drink anything. You just want to die,” he said.
The second time it happened, Khaled said he was attending his first year as a geology student at the University of Damascus, where he lived with his five roommates.
Officials arrested them all. After spending two months in jail, Khaled and only three of his friends were released.
“I never knew what happened to them, but they probably died in jail,” Khaled said of his other two roommates.
It was then he realized just how unsafe it was to stay in his village.
Together with his brother Ebrahem and their grandmother, they packed their few belongings and settled in the village of Bloudan, around 30 miles from the capital.
They lived there for a month until the government took Khaled for the third and final time, a month after his father was killed.
This time was the worst and Khaled had had enough — it was time to leave Syria for Lebanon.
“I just wanted to go,” Khaled said. “I didn’t care what happened on the road to Lebanon. If I arrived there, that’s too good. If I die on the road to Lebanon, that’s OK, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to at least live a normal life.”
The three gathered their things again and rode in a taxi for two hours until they reached the heavily patrolled border. The Lebanese soldiers let them through.
Life in Lebanon
A friend of their father’s received them in the capital Beirut, taking them into his home with his family for about a week until the three could get settled on their own.
After hours of stopping by numerous shops and restaurants asking for employment, Khaled and Ebrahem were hired as waiters at a local restaurant and found an apartment to rent.
Life in Lebanon for them was not easy but at least they felt safe, they said. The brothers worked 15 to 17 hours per day, together taking home $800 a month. That was just enough to cover their $600 rent and the essentials necessary to survive.
Five months after arriving in Beirut, Khaled and Ebrahem took their grandmother’s friend’s advice and visited the United Nations office to inquire about the possibility of seeking refuge in a Western country.
A month after their first visit, the brothers received a phone call from the U.N. asking them for an in-person interview, in which they shared their painful journey from Syria to Lebanon in more detail.
After the interview, the two were officially deemed refugees in the country.
A little over a month later, the brothers went in for a second interview at the U.N., where they were asked if they would like to travel to another country to resettle as refugees there. The brothers eagerly accepted and were told to wait for another phone call.
In a span of about seven months, the brothers were interviewed twice — first by the U.N. and then by the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon.
They were told to wait five days for a phone call to find out if they would be accepted as refugees in the United States or not.
When Khaled received the call, he could not keep the tears from streaming down his face.
“I felt like the luckiest person in the world,” he said.
“And I started dancing,” added Ebrahem, laughing with his older brother.
After medical examinations and security screenings, Khaled and Ebrahem were contacted by the International Organization for Migration. The group had bought plane tickets to the U.S. for them.
America, At Last
Six days later, the brothers were sitting on a plane for their very first time, grasping the seat handles with sweaty hands.
Two plane stops and nineteen hours later, Khaled and Ebrahem finally set foot on the snowy Virginia soil that early February morning.
“I was too happy but I was also scared,” Khaled said. “It’s all new people, it’s all new country, and new language that I didn’t know.”
An employee of Commonwealth Catholic Charities, a nonprofit organization that works with the State Department to resettle refugees, received them at the airport and drove the brothers to an apartment complex that was to be their new home.
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Under the charity’s care, Khaled and Ebrahem resettled comfortably and took a month-long course on understanding the basics of American life and culture. In its contract with the government, the charity covered their housing, food, and transportation for three months until the brothers became self-sufficient.
Now, after living in the U.S. for eight months, Khaled and Ebrahem are adapting and assimilating to American culture, working full-time at a meatpacking factory, and taking classes to improve their English.
Now, both are determined to earn a college degree and make the most out of their new-found freedom. And they are looking forward to finally reuniting with their family here in the States.