Dishwasher to doctor

Syrian refugee achieves American dream. Now he helps others do the same.

Early on a Sunday morning in August, dozens of immigrants and refugees line up outside a free health clinic in suburban Atlanta. When the red front door finally swings open at the small brick building with white dormers, the patients file in and take up all the seats in the crowded waiting rooms. Some balance babies on their laps in the Clarkston Community Health Center as they patiently wait for their names to be called. Others stare into the middle distance, their expressions conveying weariness. The handwritten log on a plain white sheet of paper shows the patients are from Afghanistan, Haiti, India, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria and Tanzania. None has health insurance or much money. But they have an abundance of misery: diabetes, heart disease, eye pains, arm pains, side pains, kidney problems, headaches and toothaches.

Among the volunteer doctors they are here to see is a Syrian-American whose first name means “friend” in Kurdish. Tall with thick glasses, a beard and a gentle smile, Dr. Heval Kelli’s German accent hints at his own long journey as a fellow refugee. Like many of those waiting for his help, the 34-year-old Lilburn resident and his family lost almost everything fleeing persecution two decades ago. A long, perilous road brought the Muslim here just days after one of this nation’s darkest moments in history — the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Finally, it is Houda Ali Alhusseini’s turn to see Heval. The 51-year-old Moroccan-American woman is carrying a painful secret. Wearing a floral print hijab and light blue slippers, she climbs atop Heval’s exam table. Heval flips through her medical chart and discovers she has hypothyroidism, a condition that can cause fatigue, depression and heart problems. He asks her a series of questions. To Heval, evaluating a patient’s health is like listening to a musical performance. Doctors, he says, need to listen carefully so they can pick out anything that sounds off-key.

“How long were you off of the medicine?” he asks.

Four months, she responds.

Where does she live, who helps her, he asks.

Her eyes brim with tears. And then it comes out: She is unemployed and homeless following a series of distressing events, culminating in the death of her mother in Morocco. The reason she hasn’t been taking her medicine is simple. She can’t afford it. She apologizes for crying as sobs gently roll through her body like waves. Heval tells her not to worry.

“We all have been in the same position,” the doctor in sky blue scrubs says. “I understand.”

He switches to Arabic, wishing her good health, inshallah. And then he grabs a phone and dials a well-known humanitarian worker in Clarkston. Amina Osman — or “Momma Amina” as many in Clarkston know her — arrives moments later. A former refugee whose husband and 10 children were killed during the Somali civil war in 1991, she enters the examination room and tightly hugs Houda. “Don’t cry,” Amina tells her.

Amina offers her home to Houda while Heval spreads the word about the woman’s plight. A philanthropist shows up, pressing $300 cash into Houda’s hands, insisting on anonymity. Overwhelmed by what has just happened, Houda sits in a lawn chair on a patch of grass outside the clinic, weeping with Amina at her side. She expresses wonder about Heval and all the good fortune he has brought her this day. He is different than the other doctors she has seen. He took time with her and asked about her life. He treated her like a human. God, she says, sent him to her. To her, it was as if Heval could feel what she was feeling.


Everything changed

The banging on the front door of Heval’s home is loud and insistent, followed by threats to break it down.

It’s the summer of 1996 in suburban Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. Heval is 13. He and his family are Sunnis living in a nation ruled by Shiite-leaning Alawites and riven by sectarian violence. They are also Kurds, a stateless ethnic group that has long been persecuted in the region. They are dwelling in an oppressive police state that is spying on, torturing and assassinating its own people. President Hafez al-Assad’s regime was infamous for having massacred thousands of people to crush a Sunni Muslim rebellion in 1982.

Suspected of treason, rightly or wrongly, many Syrians are being snatched off the streets, imprisoned and brutally beaten. Some are hanged. The government’s tactics are alienating friends and neighbors from one another. No one wants to be a suspect or be seen with someone who is. Heval remembers his mother’s paranoia over his school art projects at the time. She warned him to avoid drawing anything resembling the green, red and yellow Kurdistan flag.

The banging on the door persists. Heval’s mother Saadia, a teacher and a homemaker, overcomes her fear and opens it to find three men dressed in plainclothes and black military-style boots, brandishing rifles.

Do you have papers, something to show me, she asks. Are you the police? My husband is an attorney.

The men don’t answer. Instead they barge in, slamming the door behind them. When she protests, they growl at her to shut up and call her a bitch. One shoves her against a wall and strikes her on the thigh with the butt of his rifle. As his mother cries out, Heval rushes to her side and is struck on the head. The room starts spinning. Blood streams down his face.

“It was a reflex for me – I responded,” Heval recalls. “And the next thing I know I am lying on the floor. I am dizzy and I am trying to make out what happened.”

The men ransack their home, searching for evidence Kemal was working against the regime. They break a closet door, smash the kids’ prized foosball game and rifle through their father’s clothes. The ordeal lasts maybe 10 minutes. As they leave empty-handed, the men identify themselves as the mukhabarat, Syria’s secret police, and tell Saadia that her husband, Kemal, is in jail.

An attorney for the government, Kemal had been pressured by government officials to spy on fellow Kurds. He’d refused, but they kept coming to his office and questioning him. He worried others might think he was working for or against the regime, so he had quit his post and opened his own law office.

Kemal’s legal work had afforded his family a comfortable living. Heval and his younger brother, Mohamed, attended a private Christian school, where Heval was an honor student. He read voraciously and dreamed of becoming an artist. The family enjoyed beach vacations. Their spacious apartment had flagstone floors and two sunny balconies, where Heval rode his red tricycle as a toddler. Heval’s uncle owned an Olympic-size swimming pool. The Kellis spent time there every summer, swimming and barbecuing.

“It was beautiful,” Heval said about his childhood.

All of that changed the day the mukhabarat arrived at his home.

Contributed photo

Kemal’s plight

Kemal returned home three months later, but he wasn’t the same. The kind of man who shaved and put on a tie every day before work, he was now unshaven, disheveled and gaunt with sunken cheeks. His mind was rattled by amnesia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Today Kemal is 70 and suffers from dementia. He can’t recall everything about his painful experience and won’t talk about what he does remember. But at the time he told his family he was kept in solitary confinement for a month in a dungeon-like cell the size of a closet. Dark and dirty, it wasn’t big enough for him to fully stretch out on the floor while he slept.

He was pumped for information about Kurdish political parties that were advocating for independence. The authorities wanted to know how these groups operated. Kemal had no clue. Guards put cigarettes out on his leg, causing sores that became infected. But they saved their worst punishment for his fellow prisoners. Using what they called the “dulab” method, they forced prisoners to stick their heads, arms and legs through the openings of car tires. Stuck, they couldn’t resist as their tormentors beat them with sticks and rubber belts. Kemal could hear the victims shrieking with pain. Heval wonders if his father endured more than he admitted, sparing his family the details, perhaps to keep them from doing anything rash.

Upon his release, Kemal and his wife quickly made plans to flee. So they wouldn’t attract attention, they left most of their belongings behind, even Saadia’s gold jewelry. They told their children they were going on vacation. First, they traveled to Kobani, just south of the Turkish border, and stayed with relatives for a week. Then they slipped on foot across the border at night with the help of smugglers, who guided them through fields laced with landmines. Although the journey took less than an hour, it felt like an eternity.

The family stayed at a friend’s home in Turkey for nearly three months before flying to France on $11,000 worth of visas and phony passports. There they burned their documents, fearing Syrian authorities could still find them. Then they boarded a train to Hanover, Germany, where they reunited with Kurdish friends from Syria and applied for refugee status. Though they were several thousand miles from their oppressors, there was more trouble ahead.

Refugees in Germany

Heval’s first week at school in Germany was marked by a punch in the nose. It started when the kids in his seventh-grade class shouted insults at him, calling him an auslander, or foreigner, and telling him to get out of their country. Then a hulking bully pushed him. With visions of Bruce Lee movies playing in his head, Heval pushed back, thinking that would be the end of it. That’s when the bully socked Heval in the face, bloodying his nose and making him cry.

Heval fled to his family’s one-bedroom apartment in Herscheid, a small, wooded community in a nature park in the Ebbe Mountains. The family’s standard of living dropped precipitously there. Heval’s father couldn’t work in Germany without legal status. So they survived on government assistance and wore hand-me-down clothes. Heval was ashamed to go shopping with his parents because the German vouchers they received came in bright red books that screamed “welfare.” They shared a bathroom with everyone else on their floor.

Heval eventually befriended other refugees in Herscheid. They came from Albania, Bosnia, Morocco, Nigeria and Tunisia. They spoke Arabic and were fearless, having experienced violence and deprivation in their native countries. One of the Moroccan boys asked Heval if the Germans were harassing him. When Heval pointed out his nemesis, the Moroccan boy walked up to the bully and repeatedly slapped him in the face. The other immigrants and refugees — armed with a knife, a rock, a stick — coiled for action. The bully backed down and never troubled Heval again. Heval found himself in a gang of displaced foreigners empowered by their numbers. They smoked. They fought. They performed poorly in school. Half of their German vocabulary consisted of curse words. Heval talked back to his teachers. He failed his classes.

“I knew they were 100 percent wrong with what they were doing,” he said of the gang. “But it was between me being beaten up by the German kids every day or me having protection and being a bad kid. That was my decision. I had no other options.”

When the school called Kemal in for a conference about Heval’s behavior, he wore a tie to the meeting, expecting to hear good news about his son, who had been a straight-A student in Syria. But what the interpreter conveyed to him about Heval made Kemal’s face turn red.

Kemal didn’t say a word during their walk home from school that day. Heval describes it as the longest walk of his life. He wished his father would just lecture him. Instead, Kemal cried and told Saadia, your son failed us. Ashamed, Heval vowed to do better. He convinced his head teacher to tutor him each morning before school. With his teacher’s help, he brought up his grades. He also got interested in medicine while watching a German doctor take care of a gravely ill friend, a Kurdish refugee who eventually died from leukemia. Heval decided he wanted to go to college and become a doctor. But he couldn’t do that without legal status in Germany.

For three years Heval’s family tried in vain to gain legal status. In frustration, Kemal petitioned for his family to be resettled as refugees in America. The process — involving the U.S. State Department, United Nations and the International Organization for Migration — took two years and required numerous interviews. Finally, they were approved to come to America in 2001. They were waiting for their travel documents when Islamic extremists slammed planes into New York’s World Trade Center towers. Heval’s family was devastated. There was no way, they thought, America would take in any more Muslim refugees after that.

Christian aid

A new knock at their door brought back old fears for Heval’s family. The Kellis were hunkered down in their Clarkston apartment the day of their arrival in America, too frightened to step outside. Miraculously, the United States had permitted them to resettle there, just two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks. They were grateful but anxious. Well-meaning but misinformed Germans and fellow refugees had warned them America was one big dangerous ghetto.

Was it the CIA at the door? The FBI? Anti-Muslim revenge seekers? The Kellis hoped whoever it was would go away. After a few minutes, Heval peered out the front window of their sand-colored apartment and saw a group of white men and women on their front step. They were staring right back at him, smiling. Wielding a yellow German-to-English dictionary, Heval opened the door and learned they were from Atlanta’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church. The church, which has a long history of helping refugees fleeing persecution, was working with the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, the humanitarian agency that helped the Kellis resettle in Clarkston.

The churchgoers took the family to Walmart, buying them what they needed. They paid the family’s rent, taught them English, furnished their apartment, hosted a welcoming party in their honor and helped Heval’s brother Mohamed get a full scholarship to Pace Academy, a private college preparatory school.

“There were Christian people welcoming a Muslim family right after 9/11,” Heval said. “All of these misconceptions about America are so wrong. America gets so much hate in the world, but nobody understands this is one of the best countries.”

The church’s love, however, could not stop Kemal’s decline. The poisonous memories of his imprisonment in Syria, Heval said, were eroding his father’s health. Missing his homeland and his legal career and falling into a deep depression, Kemal struggled with heart disease and kidney problems. He couldn’t go back to work. Saadia, meanwhile, was suffering from kidney stones and the leg injury she sustained when the Syrian authorities barged into her home and beat her. Heval’s younger brother was too young to work. Their government aid was running out. Now 18, Heval realized he had to step up.

A volunteer at Clarkston Community Health Center, Heval speaks with fourth-year medical student Ariel Majidi.

Photo: Heval stands outside the Clarkston Community Health Center. Contributed by Brian Meltz, Emory University


The dishwasher

Heval found his first job in America washing dishes at the Mediterranean Grill, a bustling restaurant near Emory University. Located in a bland tan-colored strip mall, the restaurant is sandwiched between a used sporting goods store and a consignment shop. A bright red neon sign in the front window advertises “Fresh Kabobs.” In a narrow open kitchen that looks out over a small dining room, the chefs serve up falafel, baba ghanoush and sweet, flaky baklava.

Embarrassed by his limited English, Heval stayed behind the scenes, feeling like a “ghost.” Enviously, he watched the Emory medical students dining at the restaurant in their blue and green scrubs. He vowed he would one day be like them.

“As hard as it was, that was the only thing that kept me hopeful and kept my family hopeful — that one day I could become something and take care of them,” he said.

When the kitchen fogged up amid all the steam, Heval would trace the English words he was learning on the metal dishwashing machine. He turned the English words over in his mind hundreds of times, rehearsing how to say them. He made a promise to himself that he would read a page in a book for every dish he washed. He treated learning English like a full-time job. The kitchen became his office.

Heval got straight A’s at Clarkston High School. But after he took the SAT on the Emory campus, he cried as he walked back to work at the Mediterranean Grill.

“I felt the most frustrated and confused in my life,” he said. “I felt like I did terribly because the test was hard. You are talking about someone who had just spoken English for four months.”

But Heval did well enough to get into college. A fellow refugee from Rwanda helped him navigate the application process at Georgia State University, where he excelled in premed. He studied on his train and bus rides to school and work, and he paid his way with a mix of grant and scholarship money. To support his family, he got a loan and continued washing dishes at the restaurant, mowed lawns and took babysitting jobs. After he graduated from Georgia State, Heval and his parents and brother became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2006.

Dr. Omar Lattouf, a heart surgeon who teaches at Emory, learned through the grapevine of Heval’s desire to be a doctor and took him under his wing. A Jordanian native, Lattouf mentored Heval and wrote recommendation letters for him to get into the Morehouse School of Medicine and then a residency at Emory where he was awarded a prestigious fellowship focusing on preventative cardiology.

When he got his Emory ID, Heval walked back to the Mediterranean Grill, tracing the same path he followed years before when he was depressed about his performance on the SAT. With a tear in his eye, he proudly presented his Emory ID at the grill for a student discount. It was a moment of triumph for him, a hard-fought achievement that took about 10 years. He wore his scrubs into the restaurant. His Emory ID had his name and photo on it. It said “MD.” He wasn’t a ghost anymore.

“Nobody could take this away from me,” he recalled, “not the mukhabarat.”

Photo: Local American veterans and Atlanta-area Syrian refugees enjoy a large buffet during a luncheon at Clarkston Community Center. Steve Schaefer / For the AJC


The vet and the doctor

Garrett Cathcart felt like he was being stabbed in the back with a dull knife. A 36-year-old U.S. Army veteran and three-time recipient of the Bronze Star for combat leadership in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was prone to kidney stones. And this one felt serious. So he headed to the Atlanta VA Medical Center, a blue and cream-colored hospital complex in Decatur.

Heval was moonlighting at the medical center that day, making some extra money to support his mother and father, both of whom live with him in his Lilburn home. Garrett felt out of place among all the Vietnam War veterans in the medical center and wanted to leave quickly. He asked if he could get some pain medication so he could be on his way. As a soldier, Garrett learned to grit his teeth and tough it out. But Heval was concerned. He kept the veteran there with small talk long enough to get a blood sample and complete a CT scan. Confirming the presence of a large kidney stone, Heval directed Garrett to return the next day so he could see a urologist about having it removed. To Garrett, it seemed like Heval genuinely cared about him.

Months passed and Heval faded in Garrett’s memory. Then a friend invited Garrett to All Saints’ Episcopal Church. The featured guest speaker that day was Heval. He talked about his harrowing journey from Syria to America. And he introduced a young Kurdish Syrian girl who fled her native country with her family after the Islamic State invaded her village and began executing her neighbors with a sword. Inspired by President Donald Trump’s campaign promise in 2015 to temporarily bar Muslims from coming to America, Heval had become more vocal in support of refugees.

Saadia Kelli (right) and Hayat Ibrahim fuss over Leonardo Garcia-Ide at the April luncheon at the Clarkston Community Center. Steve Schaefer \/ For the AJC

Saadia Kelli (right) and Hayat Ibrahim fuss over Leonardo Garcia-Ide at the April luncheon at the Clarkston Community Center. Steve Schaefer / For the AJC

His speech that day at the church gave Garrett goosebumps. He approached Heval and introduced himself. Heval peered into his eyes for a moment before asking: How are your kidneys? Garrett was flabbergasted. He felt foolish for not remembering the attentive doctor who cared for him. The two struck up a friendship. Garrett works for Team Red, White & Blue, a nonprofit that supports veterans. He and Heval recognized the similarities between the groups they champion. Veterans and refugees have both experienced war and they both love America. Why not bring them together for an event that could help foster understanding at a particularly fraught moment for refugees?

On April 9 in the Clarkston Community Center, with several local television news crews filming, Syrian refugee women set out a feast of fragrant tabbouleh, zucchini stuffed with lamb and long rice sprinkled with cashews. On stage, a professional musician who fled the violence in Iraq played piano. Bearded and tattooed veterans sat elbow to elbow with Syrian refugees, sharing a meal. And at the end, they danced hand in hand to traditional Syrian-Kurdish music.

Garrett still marvels at how the day went. As he thought about it recently, he recalled a moment in Afghanistan when he was leading his men in a firefight against the Taliban. As he stood on a rooftop that day and called in airstrikes, he remembered thinking that was the very moment he mattered most in his life, the moment he had the biggest impact on the world. But through his work with veterans and refugees, Garrett has found a new purpose. And Heval has been instrumental in that.

“It has meant a lot,” Garrett said. “It’s enriched my life for sure.”

Saadia and Heval enjoy the deck of the home they share with Kemal in Lilburn.

Photo: Heval speaks after receiving a humanitarian award from New American Pathways.


The American dream

The Atlanta ballroom falls silent as Paedia Mixon takes the stage and stands before a backdrop of translucent red, white and blue curtains. The costumed Laotian children’s dance team has finished its performance and is taking a break. The ebullient emcee in the shiny teal jacket has put away his microphone. There are no sounds save the clinking of spoons among the hundreds of guests dining on Mississippi mud pie and banana pudding parfaits.

The crowd is there to raise money for New American Pathways, the Atlanta refugee aid organization that Mixon leads, the same agency that resettled Heval’s family in Clarkston in 2001 when it was known as the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta. Mixon reminds the audience that Trump’s travel ban has severely restricted America’s refugee resettlement program at a time when there are nearly 23 million refugees seeking a home. Then she introduces Heval as the recipient of her agency’s 2017 Friend of Freedom award, citing his work helping newcomers from around the world.

Heval starts out with a short, humorous account of his dishwasher-to-doctor story before identifying the secret of his success. He pauses for dramatic effect, looking out over a large crowd of people sitting at round banquet tables draped with white tablecloths. Yes, he worked hard and studied hard. So did his younger brother, Mohamed, now a surgical resident at East Tennessee State University. But something else helped get them to where they are now.

“The answer is you — people like you who took their time and funding and invested in people like us to invest back in the community one day,” he says.

Sitting at one of the round tables in the audience, listening intently to Heval and laughing at his jokes, is the Somali native who picked up the Kelli family at the Atlanta airport in 2001, and a volunteer from All Saints’ Episcopal Church who helped furnish their apartment in Clarkston.

“When you look at someone like a refugee or an immigrant or a minority or someone in need who you think could serve this country, please look at them as an investment — an opportunity to invest back in our country,” he says. And then in a subtle jab at Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, Heval declares: “This country is great, period.” The crowd applauds and cheers.

Emotion catching in his throat, Heval turns to his mother and thanks her for working so hard to support his family. She is sitting at his table near the stage. The audience gives her a standing ovation. Heval finishes by thanking God, saying he is grateful for everything that has happened to his family, even their painful experiences in Syria and Germany, the unpredictable and extraordinary twists of fate that brought them to America. Even as America was still recovering from the grievous wounds inflicted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this country welcomed Heval — a Muslim refugee from Syria — and helped him achieve his dream. And now Heval is living out that dream by helping fellow Americans and newcomers heal.

Heval, right, with his younger brother, Mohamed, in Syria. Contributed photo

Heval (right) and his brother Mohamed during an interview at the Clarkston Community Health Center. Curtis Compton/


While always gripping and inspirational, immigrant stories about people coming to this country with nothing and managing through hard work and dedication to achieve their dreams is familiar. Nevertheless, Dr. Heval Kelli’s journey is particularly dramatic, considering the dire circumstances of his escape and the lofty heights of his achievements. But perhaps what makes his story stand out most is how much he’s given back to the refugee and immigrant communities, multiplying the aid he received many times over. Heval’s story is particuarly timely, considering President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which goes before the U.S. Supreme Court next month.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Jeremy Redmon covers immigration and refugees for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His reporting has taken him to the U.S.-Mexican border, Central America and the Middle East. His latest work has focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, the plight of Dreamers and deaths in federal immigration detention centers. Redmon is enrolled in the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts program in narrative nonfiction writing.

Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Guardian US, Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years.

Heval as a child in Syria. Contributed photo