The Arab Spring held so much promise for Syrians like Ammar Kawkab, a Kurdish refugee from the northeastern city of Al-Qamishli who, along with his wife and four children, settled in City Heights on June 2, 2016. It was such a momentous occasion for Kawkab and his family that he could likely recall the precise time.
Kawkab speaks to me alongside a translator (fellow refugee Mustafa Bid who’s been in the U.S. for two years) though three hours of daily English classes has given Kawkab an impressive foundation. At 52 years old, he is slender, balding and handsome. He has a kind, uninhibited smile and twinkling eyes that belie the traumatic history he shares with other refugees. Still, he exudes a relaxed brightness that runs counter to the current political mood but also serves to clarify just how much American-born residents take for granted.
For Kawkab, life in Al-Qamishli was never not oppressive prior to 2011, especially for Kurds who have been persecuted for decades. The revolution, though, held promise. An educated man with two degrees, Kawkab was swept up in it and used words and art (he is a painter) to speak out against the Syrian government.
He was subsequently jailed for one month, an unimaginable experience that clearly still affects him. Kawkab becomes too emotional to speak as he shares this part of his story and collects himself by diverting my attention to a certificate his 16-year-old daughter received at school. “Student of the Month” it reads. She would like to work for NASA someday. Kawkab is as proud of her as is any parent who just wants the best for their child.
Once released from jail—with just the clothes on his body, a few photographs, the memories of his homeland and $53 in his pocket—Kawkab and his family made a difficult journey from Al-Qamishli to Lebanon, where they lived in a one-room apartment in Beirut. They endured this limbo for more than two years while the U.S. government vetted Kawkab via many hours-long interviews in the hope that he’d be approved for immigration.
Kawkab reflects on what was lost when he left Syria.
“The house and the money, no problem,” he says with a wave of his hand. These are just material things. “But me... I lost home.” He touches his heart. “What you see in Aleppo, that was happening in all of Syria for the last five years. But we know that if the American people knew what was happening, they would do something about it.”
Ammar Kawkab says Americans have been kind. “Everybody here is smile,” he says. “They’re nice! They’re good!”
When I ask why he came to America, he doesn’t hesitate: Freedom and safety. “The dream,” he says.
He feels this is his country now, and he wants to give back. He is grateful for American protection, and wants people to know that he is just like any other person. He is human, a citizen, with the same desires and hopes as anyone else.
“Now, I am free,” he says with a smile. “I am free here.”
When asked if he’s ever felt that way before, he doesn’t hesitate.
“No!” he says. “No! No! Never. Never, never, never, never, never!” He continues: “I had that feeling coming in the airport…” he is too overcome to speak and simply gives me two thumbs up with a smile and tears in his beautiful eyes.
Maybe he will learn a word for that feeling in his English class, though I’m not convinced there is one.