A refugee’s journey from Syria to America
Mahmoud Hallak is one of many people from Muslim countries within the United States waiting anxiously to hear if they will get their green card.
President Donald Trump recently signed a new executive order on immigration banning people from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
It has left many people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen in a state of limbo.
Mahmoud left his home in Syria and headed to America after his father was murdered by the Syrian Military in 2011 for treating injured protesters.
‘We were more than father and son’
In 2011, I spoke to Mahmoud’s uncle Hazem Hallak about the murder of his brother Dr Sakher Hallak in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria before the civil war.
“They took him on Wednesday night. The actual interrogation and the torture started Thursday night,” he told me.
“They actually used drills to drill his head when he was still alive, and we’re talking more than one or two holes, we’re talking about like 10 to 20 holes.
“His bones were broken, and then he was mutilated, his eyes gauged, and his genitals were mutilated. He had a big cut in his chest and abdomen.”
That’s how he described what happened to his brother, who was a specialist in eating disorders.
His tortured body was found in a ditch on the side of the road two days after he was detained by Syrian forces on May 25, 2011.
The family have said his only crime was to treat injured protestors and to sign a petition to uphold his medical oath. They claim the Syrian Government viewed his actions as an act of treason.
Mahmoud said he remembered a lot about his father.
“Because we were more than father and son. We were best friends. He was always around teaching me everything that I need to know,” he said.
Mahmoud was 15 years old and in high school taking his final exam when a teacher came into the classroom and took him to the principal’s office.
“I found a neighbour waiting for me. He drove me in his car and parked a few blocks away from the house,” he said.
“He said I was now the man of the house, your dad passed away. I was in disbelief. I started crying.”
Mahmoud ran home to his mother and sisters.
“Everything changed from that point,” he said.
“It was like getting slapped in the face and waking up from a dream. It seemed like my life didn’t exist.
“I had to rethink every aspect of my life — financial, my plans to have tutors to do really well in my final exam, how is my family doing, and my mum was pregnant.”
Slipping into war
People think of Aleppo as a war-torn city, but that wasn’t the case in 2011.
The world heritage listed city had been mostly immune to protests and the population was known for its loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad — but that all changed in 2012.
Mahmoud Hallak joined the peaceful protest movement in Aleppo because he opposed President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship and wanted more freedom.
“The Free Syrian Army had entered the city and liberated some of the neighbourhoods. They were close to my neighbourhood,” he said as he recalled his last week in Aleppo.
“I woke up feeling like I was choking. I couldn’t breathe and that was because when I was sleeping there was a helicopter shooting heavy bullets.
“I woke up thinking that I can’t take hearing that noise over and over again.
“Every now and then you would hear a bomb explode or some shelling or jet fighters flying. That’s when I realised that we were slipping into war.”
Then Mahmoud found out that his decision to participate in the peaceful protests had consequences.
“I got the news that some people got arrested and they got our names and where we live,” he said.
“That, coupled with the shelling, we decided to leave the neighbour and go to my grandparent’s house.”
The family would later cross the border into Turkey.
‘One of the hardest things I’ve ever done’
Mahmoud’s father was focused on building a future for his children, and he left a gift for Mahmoud before he died that would change his life.
“The year prior , my dad had come to the US for a conference on eating disorders, which is his specialty,” Mahmoud said.
“He knew that I was passionate about western culture, so when he applied for a visa he also applied for me, it was granted.”
Mahmoud decided to separate from his family and travel to the United States.
“I was torn apart. I left my sister when she was one year old. All these things went through my head. All the things that I’ll be missing, all the experiences,” he said.
“Leaving my family was one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through.
“I also felt hope. I remember when the airplane got over the US and started lowering. I looked down and just saw this next level advancement that I had never experienced.
“That really got me motivated to make sure that I’m going to become part of America and a better version of myself.”
Mahmoud was granted asylum in 2015 and applied for a green card the following year.
“It’s been more than a year now since I submitted my green card application and I’m still stuck in the same cycle,” he said.
“Every time I ask what is going on they tell me they’re still doing background checks.”
Executive order ‘felt like a personal attack’
Mahmoud knows that he can’t be deported under Mr Trump’s second executive order on immigration, but the status of his green card application is unclear because of his Syrian nationality.
“I’m pretty much positive that they have stopped issuing green cards to Syrians,” he said.
“It’s also really troubling because as from now, I have no idea what is going on inside immigration services.”
He’s studying to become a chemical engineer and needs to stay in the US to continue his studies and take part in international field trips.
“The executive order is the first attack that I’ve ever experienced myself in America,” he said.
“I haven’t been attacked or singled out, personally. Governments are not people, and people are not governments.
“I’ve seen that with my own eyes back in Syria and I’m now seeing it in America.
“My goal is to advance as much as possible with my studies, in my career and make a difference in the world.”
Originally published at www.abc.net.au on March 12, 2017.