There are moments when politics overwhelms our humanity. Once a candidate threatens his audience with a fear of refugees, coming to this country in waves, “and we won’t know who the h--- they will be,” our safe haven feels threatened.
So, let us remind ourselves the process for entering the United States takes at least two years. Refugee families may spend as long as 10 years in camps and only 1 percent of the millions of those displaced families, worldwide, are lucky enough to come to this country following interviews, background checks and security screenings. Extensive vetting of refugees is a lame campaign issue. They are carefully vetted now.
When Heval Kelli was a young boy living in Syria, police searched his parents’ house for evidence his father was not loyal to an oppressive government. As a lawyer, his father knew his wife and children were not safe as Kurdish Muslims. The Kelli family fled to Turkey.
In 1996, Heval Kelli’s father paid smugglers to help his family begin a new life in Germany. There, the Kellis lived in a refugee camp for five years. A German church helped them to apply for immigration status in the United States.
Two years of background checks followed: Fingerprints and photographs taken, medical screening, interviews. Once the Kelli family was approved, they flew to the United States two weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Heval Kelli recalls standing in the Atlanta airport, a knot in his stomach, fear, as he realized his mother’s traditional Muslim head covering was attracting attention.
Met at the airport by a social worker, the Kelli family was taken to an apartment in Clarkston, and welcomed by members of Atlanta’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, a parish with a refugees committee, including members who tutor foreign students, provide furniture and clothing for those who have lost everything and help to make the transition to a new country easier.
Heval Kelli’s father was ill. His mother could not find work and his 14-year-old brother was too young to help pay the rent. At 17, learning English and studying every spare minute he had, Heval Kelli found a job in a restaurant, washing dishes 30 hours a week.
By the time he had been accepted at Georgia State University as a HOPE scholarship recipient, he was working three jobs. The church, All Saints, helped his brother find scholarship money to study at Pace Academy. By chance, his classmate, the daughter of heart surgeon, Omar Lattouf, learned of Heval Kelli’s dream of becoming a doctor.
Her father became Heval Kelli’s mentor. After graduating from Georgia State University, the boy who came to this country as a Kurdish refugee, graduated with honors from Morehouse School of Medicine.
His brother is now a second-year resident in general surgery in Tennessee. Dr. Heval Kelli is the Katz Foundation Fellow in Preventive Cardiology at Emory University. He volunteers at the Clarkston Community Health Center Clinic on Sundays, seeing patients who do not have health insurance.
He also co-founded the Young Physicians Initiative, a doctors’ mentoring program, helping high school students, interested in pursuing careers in medicine. And the surgeon whose daughter studied at Pace Academy? He is Dr. Kelli’s partner as both men work with immigrants and refugees.
Dr. Kelli has not forgotten an old Kurdish saying, steeped in gratitude: “Whoever taught you the letters, you owe them a book.” Though this political season has seen the tragedy of millions of displaced families used as a scare tactic, Dr. Kelli hopes Americans will experience refugees as “an investment rather than a burden.” “This is my home,” he says, proudly.
As a reminder of the life he leads as an Emory Fellow and his early years of study, leading him to work to prevent heart disease, Dr. Kelli has a unique view from a window in his office.
A block away, he can see the restaurant where he washed dishes as a 17-year-old boy, a refugee, brought to a new country, one welcoming him, offering him a helping hand as he became a healer of hearts.