From Aleppo to to America: A Syrian odyssey

By Louisa Loveluck

Abdulla Khoja and his family, pictured in Istanbul on January 31, will arrive in New York today as the court decides whether to reinstate President Donald Trump's ban. Photo / The Washington Post
Abdulla Khoja and his family, pictured in Istanbul on January 31, will arrive in New York today as the court decides whether to reinstate President Donald Trump's ban. Photo / The Washington Post

The Khoja family's arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport today will mark the end of an odyssey they feared they would never complete.

Beginning three years ago in the Syrian city of Aleppo, it has taken them through streets patrolled by snipers and across a militarised border where guards shoot to kill.

It has taken them through three years eking out a living in Turkey as Syria's war killed hundreds of thousands and turned their old street into piles of shattered stone.

And last week, just when they thought they were finally safe, it left them trapped in Istanbul after one of the Trump Administration's most contentious decisions to date.

Their bags had been packed for a flight when the White House announced on January 28 a ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States. "At first I thought it was a joke, that she was joking with me," said Mahmoud Khoja, 58, remembering the phone call telling them their flights had been cancelled.

" I just froze."

Today, after a week in which courts have suspended the bans over questions of their legality, Khoja and his family will arrive in New York as another court decides whether President Donald Trump's ban should be reinstated.

Amid the largest refugee crisis since World War II, families like the Khojas represent just the tiniest fraction of a human exodus encompassing the rich and poor of every faith. And despite the political debates in the United States and Europe, most Syrian refugees will never leave the Middle East.

After almost six years of war, Turkey is hosting at least 2.8 million refugees. In Lebanon, at least a million. Fewer than 17,000 reside in the United States.

Families approved for resettlement in the United States have undergone up to two years of security vetting by multiple international and government agencies. They have also been identified as those in the greatest need and priority is given for victims of torture, women at risk of abuse, and families in need of serious medical and psychological treatment.

In our reporting from the Middle East, we have covered some of the reasons Syrians are fleeing. In Aleppo, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. In the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, it is the iron-fist of Isis (Islamic State). And across areas held by the Syrian Government, it is sheer terror at the torture one might face in jail.

With the federal appeals court's decision looming, another family thousands of kilometres away in Cairo will be waiting to learn if their own flight to Chicago will go ahead this time.

Speaking from his barren apartment in Cairo's Gesr el Suez neighbourhood, Samer El Noury, 37, still refuses to believe that his family can now start a new life in America. Five years after fleeing the Syrian capital, Damascus, their original flight was cancelled, and now there is nothing left for them in Cairo. Their furniture has been sold. The summer clothes have been given away.

"If I don't travel tonight, I don't want to go to the United States anymore," he said. "I'd rather go to some other country."

And if the family succeeds, have their feelings changed about the United States? "Most American people are kind and are not racist," he said. "So I am not going to judge the whole country because of one person."

- Washington Post

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