Fleeing war, more Syrians are coming to the U.S.: One family's story

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Story highlights

  • A Syrian dentist and his pharmacist wife moved with three children to a Georgia suburb
  • He cannot work as a dentist and she cannot work as a pharmacist until they re-certify in the U.S.
  • They represent a portion of the educated, middle-class Syrian refugees who have left the war-torn nation

(CNN)In their old life in Syria, Ahmad and Sama Keichour would tuck their children into bed in the evening, give a nod to their nanny and head out the door. They'd walk along the cobblestone streets of Aleppo, eager to find a table among the bustling market stalls and boutiques. They'd sip coffee and look north to a view they had cherished since childhood: the Citadel, a medieval palace in the center of Syria's second largest city. It's survived since the third millennium B.C.

Now Dr. Ahmad Keichour sees the Citadel only in fitful dreams as he sleeps in an apartment just outside Atlanta. The 42-year-old is trying hard to move forward, to be very grateful for being alive and for having his wife and three children with him. He's among the many well-educated, middle-class Syrians who've fled the war by the hundreds of thousands, but he's among the few who've left by plane and whose emotional experience hasn't dominated newscasts.
He sits on a couch, Googling old and recent photos of Aleppo. For hours, he clicks on postcard scenes and then on pictures of bloody bodies strewn in the street, intact streetscapes and then neighborhoods in ruins. He lingers on images of the Citadel as it was and as it is now, pockmarked with bullets, damaged from shelling.
    "It was beautiful. So many professionals like myself and my wife, living a very good, very beautiful life," he said, not taking his eyes off the photos. "You see -- they destroy this, they kill everyone, they kill all of us."
    Two of his relatives died in the fighting.
    "I am jealous of the dead," Ahmad said. "They don't have to see what's happened to Aleppo."
    Ahmad Keichour plays with his son, Saleh.
    More than 250,000 people have died since 2011, when violence broke out in Syria. At least 11 million people in the country of 22 million have fled their homes. Syrians are now the world's largest refugee population, according to the United Nations. Most are struggling to find safe haven in Europe. Only 1,500 refugees have entered the United States since 2011, but the Obama administration announced in September that 10,000 Syrians will be allowed entry next year.
    A Reuters/Ipsos poll released in mid-September, which surveyed 1,251 U.S. adults, found that 35% said the U.S. policy allows for too many Syrians to enter the country. Twenty-three percent said the number allowed to enter was fine, and 20% said the United States should welcome more.
    It's a contentious topic in the presidential election season. GOP candidate Donald Trump has mused that Syrians coming to the United States could be terrorists or members of ISIS.
    Congressman Peter T. King, a New York Republican, raised that specter, too.
    White House spokesman Josh Earnest countered by saying that all Syrians who gain approved entry will have gone through intense FBI and Homeland Security background checks, which include biometric and biographical analysis.

    A long wait

    Atlanta-based immigration attorney Hiba Ghalib, whose parents are Iraqi and whose husband is Syrian, believes that morally, the United States should admit more Syrians. However, she worries that there's already a lack of immigration officials spread throughout the country to process the complicated and lengthy paperwork. A backlog on asylum applications has slowed down that process even more. She tells every client to anticipate at least a year's wait to get an interview. And that can be very challenging. Once asylum is applied for, an applicant is not allowed, under U.S. law, to work in the country for eight months.
    "You have to be ready financially for that," she said. "And many who come here, especially those who didn't plan to have to flee their countries, are not."
    Ahmad and Sama applied in January for Temporary Protective Status, which the United States makes available for people from 13 countries, including Syria. The status allows them to remain for one year at a time while their home countries are in a state of untenable conflict. TPS typically takes several months for approval, Ghalib said. It's unclear why the couple's application has not made it through the system.
    Sama Keichour feeds her baby daughter.
    Every few days, Ahmad dials a toll-free immigration customer service number. "They say, 'With your nationality, we don't know, you just have to wait.'"
    The Keichours don't have an immigration attorney. Ahmad brushes off the idea that the family might need one. He doesn't directly say a lawyer would be a heavy weight on their already dwindling savings, but he makes it clear that their money is tight.
    He came to Atlanta because a dentist offered him a job, he said, and when Ahmad arrived that person stopped returning his calls.
    Sama, 37, was a pharmacist who owned her own apothecary in Syria. Her license is no good in the United States and she's unemployed.
    Ahmad Keichour works as a dental assistant, earning far less than he did as a dentist in Syria.
    Recently, Ahmad got a job as an assistant in a dental office, with a salary that he says barely covers the family's bills.
    To be a dentist in the United States means he'll have to spend years and thousands of dollars to go back to school and be certified. "I cannot pay for that," he said. "I don't have the time for that. I need to feed (my wife and kids) now."

    Bombs traumatize a special-needs child

    The couple has two daughters -- a one-year-old and 7-year-old -- and a 10-year-old autistic son, Saleh.
    Sama recalls a horrifying day in Aleppo in 2012 when a bomb exploded near their home. She rushed to her son's bedroom.
    "I saw Saleh lying on his stomach in bed with his entire body shaking violently," she said.
    Hyper-sensitive to loud noises or abrupt motions, Saleh was frozen on his belly, his face contorted in agony for a long time until his mother eventually calmed him.
    "What I saw made me want to leave," she said. They fled to Saudi Arabia. The family did not bring anything from the home that they built from the ground up in Aleppo, an ornate treasure that -- in Syrian tradition -- was constructed for several future generations to occupy.
    Key chains the couple had when they first met are the only things they have left from Syria.
    "I put my soul and energy into every stone," Sama said. "When I locked my door in Aleppo, it did not cross my mind once that I would not be going back."
    The only things they have from Syria are sentimental items they were able to carry, such as key chains they got during their earliest days as a couple.
    Ahmad was able to work in Saudi Arabia, but there were no programs that could help Saleh and the boy began to regress. Moving to the United States has allowed the Keichours to enroll their son in a school that caters to his needs.
    At least he is away from the bombs, his mother says, as the family sits down to break their fast on the first night of Eid al-Adha. The Muslim holiday, known as the Feast of Sacrifice, recalls the story of God testing Abraham by telling him to kill his son.
    Earlier that day, Sama had spoken online with her mother, who is still in Aleppo. Her eyes well with tears as she recounts their conversation. Sama knows that her mother will not tell her how dangerous it is. "She does not (want me) to worry," Sama says.
    Eid dinner in their tiny apartment is an especially hard adjustment in their new life. It has always been spent with many family members. This is the first year the Keichours are alone.