The sound of gunshots occasionally bounced off nearby apartment buildings, and bomb blasts had crept ever closer. Thankfully, Syrian resident Nabiha Kayali thought, she would be able to escape the city of Aleppo by plane the next morning.
Her hope: Reunite in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates, with her son, Columbus resident Kenan Al-Husseini.
Al-Husseini had taken a special leave from his employer, Cummins Inc., to help his mother escape the violence in civil war-torn Syria. However, as Al-Husseini waited for his connecting flight July 28 from Atlanta to Dubai, he received a most unwelcome email.
His mother’s flight had been canceled. And worse, the next available flight would be eight days later. The uncertainty and danger added to the tension.
Al-Husseini and Kayali had planned to meet in Dubai to figure out where she would live during the war. But Al-Husseini’s most pressing concern was getting his mother out of harm’s way.
Al-Husseini, who works in global recruitment for Cummins, had tried for months to talk his mom into leaving Syria, a Middle Eastern country that descended into a civil war in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising.
In December, he visited his mother in Aleppo, a city of about 2 million in northwest Syria. Though the conflict had started months earlier and had spread to Aleppo’s suburbs, the city itself was relatively calm at the time.
Except for news reports, rising prices for heating fuel and gasoline, and more frequently interrupted electric service, Aleppo residents had few indications of the conflict, which had embroiled areas near the capital city of Damascus and the entire city of Homs, which is about a two-hour drive south of Aleppo and has about 750,000 residents.
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In May, however, when fighting spread into Aleppo proper, Al-Husseini grew more worried; his mother initially remained unconvinced that she should leave.
Syria is home
Kayali had lived in Syria all her life. She has family there and is close to her neighbors.
But she, too, worried as the fighting came within earshot of her apartment building. Gunshots sounded during the night, and windows rattled from bombs.
Since the uprising began, more than 18,000 have died, most of them civilians, according to a United Nations report from Tuesday.
“There have been reports of an escalation in violence in recent weeks in many towns and villages, as well as the country’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo,” the U.N. said.
When, after repeated phone calls, Al-Husseini persuaded his mother to leave, the typical departure routes were closing fast.
Lebanon and Jordan, neighboring countries to Eqypt and Syria, typically allow Syrians to enter without a visa, according to Al-Husseini. But the war was creating a flood of refugees, and he did not think it was wise for his 59-year-old mother to leave by herself. He envisioned the airports and border crossings as crowded, chaotic and potentially dangerous.
Ideally, Al-Husseini said, she simply would have flown to Dubai and stayed there with another son, Najati Al-Husseini, but the United Arab Emirates was refusing entry to Syrians.
“I wanted her to leave,” Al-Husseini said, but his mother was running out of viable options. “I had no choice but to leave here and figure things out.”
The 32-year-old prepared to head to Syria, unsure whether he would be gone for days, months or even longer. He had three weeks of vacation time, and Cummins added two weeks of discretionary paid leave and up to six months of unpaid leave.
Al-Husseini silently hoped that he and his mom could fly from Dubai to Beirut, Lebanon, and figure things out from there.
That plan was risky.
For his mother to get to Dubai, she would have to fly from Aleppo to Damascus — and through Homs, a city with heavy fighting. Only two airlines still had flights covering that route, and they frequently got delayed or canceled. With fighting spreading in Aleppo and the flood of refugees swelling, getting to the airport and onto a plane might prove to be an insurmountable challenge.
Leaving the country “is getting more difficult by the day,” Kevin W. Martin, assistant professor in Indiana University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, said Wednesday. Martin has spent about three years in Syria, mostly in Damascus for language learning and research.
Syrian refugees are trying to leave their homeland in any way they can, even illegally crossing borders into neighboring countries, Martin said. Syria’s neighbors of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are getting overwhelmed by refugees, and he said the Lebanese, for example, also fear that the fighting will spread.
When Al-Husseini realized his mother was not going to be able to fly to Dubai right away, he switched to a backup plan.
He would fly to Lebanon, drive to Aleppo, pick up his mother and drive back to Lebanon. That would mean driving for more than two hours through a war-torn country, being subjected to numerous checkpoints and risking being pulled into a skirmish.
On the morning of July 29, after a 15-hour flight from Atlanta and a 12-hour layover, Al-Husseini was about to board his flight from Dubai to Lebanon.
But then an airport monitor showed a flight scheduled for that afternoon from Dubai to Aleppo.
“I was thinking, if a flight leaves it has to come back the same day,” Al-Husseini said.
An airline employee confirmed his hunch, and after a lot of persistence on Al-Husseini’s part, a manager with Fly Dubai told him he was going to help.
“He ... sent a memo to all Fly Dubai management telling them that he had an emergency request (to) allow the flight to be overbooked by one seat so that they could get my mother onto the flight. That request was granted, and my mother had a confirmed seat for a flight that day.”
Al-Husseini boarded his flight to Lebanon, but he could not be sure that his mother’s flight would get security clearance for takeoff.
“Naturally, she was a little ... worried about how she would make it to the airport and whether the road to the airport that day was even safe,” Al-Husseini said.
Thankfully, he said, a relative in Aleppo had a driver who knew “alternative back roads” and who had identification cards for pro-government and pro-insurgency forces, which should allow him to pass through any security checkpoints.
When the driver picked her up, Kayali stepped outside her home for the first time in five months. When they drove through the city, the presence of the tanks, checkpoints and destruction made it barely recognizable.
While she was headed to the airport, Al-Husseini called her every 10 minutes.
“My heart was pounding,” he said. “I was worried to death.”
At the first checkpoint on the drive to the airport, the insurgents asked Kayali where she was going. She didn’t mention the United States, for fear that she might be prevented from leaving.
The insurgents let her and the driver pass.
At a second checkpoint a few miles down the road, Syrian government forces searched the car. But they, too, let it through.
At the airport, Kayali and the driver encountered chaos. There were lines upon lines of about 3,000 people with all the money and possessions they could carry, but no tickets. They were trying to slither into the building to figure out a way to get onto a flight.
Luckily, Al-Husseini said, the driver knew of a side entrance and got Kayali inside the terminal building.
“At that point it was crossing fingers whether the flight was going to leave,” Al-Husseini said.
While on the runway, Kayali called her son from the plane to let him know she was going to be able to fly to Dubai. From there, she would fly to Beirut the following morning, where mother and son could be reunited.
“The sense of relief was enormous,” Al-Husseini said. “It was like the weight of the world was lifted of my
“Nothing in the world can replace that moment that I saw her.”
Once his mom was in Lebanon, it didn’t matter to him whether he had to stay there for weeks, months or years.
His return trip to the U.S. took them through Jordan, where Kayali was interviewed Aug. 8 at the U.S. embassy to get her visa, which was shipped to them in their hotel Aug. 13.
Al-Husseini then spent three hours on the phone with Delta that day — running up $400 in hotel phone charges — to book their flights to the U.S.
Delta identified a trip from Amman, Jordan, to Detroit, via Paris and Frankfurt, that was leaving about three hours later. The price: $400 for him to change his itinerary, $1,600 for a round-trip ticket for her. He paid, only to learn at the gate at the Amman airport that he and his mother lacked the proper visa for a flight within Europe. The ticketing agent then told him about a flight on Royal Jordanian from Amman to Detroit. Price: $4,500 for both. It was leaving in 65 minutes.
“I didn’t have an option at that point,” he said. “I just wanted to get home.”
With two trolleys to catch and his mother in heels, the two hustled to make the Royal Jordanian flight. After 12 hours in the air and another two hours with immigration officials, Al-Husseini and his mom arrived in the United States.
Time to reflect
In the safe confines of Indiana on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Al-Husseini and Kayali sat at a kitchen table in his ranch-style home near Elizabethtown to smoke from a hookah and drink Turkish espresso-like coffee.
“I feel fortunate,” Al-Husseini said. “It could have been a lot worse.”
The trip cost him about $15,000, but he said many people in Syria don’t have relatives outside the country and lack the financial means to escape.
Kayali smiled when asked about her experiences since she has arrived in the U.S. She said the country’s cleanliness has surprised her, and the people’s kindness has touched her. She wore a black shirt with white trim that was covered in part by her dark brown hair on a recent afternoon in Columbus. She responded to questions in Arabic, her son translating to English.
“My heart is in my country and with my family there,” she said, “But I’m really happy to be here with my child.”
However, as she thought about her neighbors and family, including an older sister in Homs, her eyes welled up with tears.
“She misses them a lot,” Al-Husseini said. She talks to them on the phone daily.
She can remain in the U.S. a maximum of six months. Both hope the conflict in Syria ends soon so that she can return home. As of now, however, the fighting there is intensifying, the rush of refugees rising.
The U.N. reported Tuesday that the number of Syrians fleeing to neighboring countries exceeded 100,000 last month, the highest total yet.
“It’s a very fluid, frightening situation,” said Martin, the Middle East scholar.
He doesn’t believe it will be resolved peacefully.
“This is going to go on for some time,” Martin said, “and a lot more people are going to suffer and die.”
If the conflict drags on, Kayali hopes to get a visa to the United Arab Emirates to stay a while with her son in Dubai. She also is trying to get a visa for France to stay with siblings there.
But for now, she is trying to get acclimated to living in rural southern Indiana, more than 6,000 miles from the place she knows as home.
She closes the blinds, draws the curtains and locks all the doors as soon as it gets dark, he said.
But she finds comfort pampering her son with home-cooked food — and lots of it. On a recent Saturday, Kayali cooked for about 20 of his friends.
Al-Husseini, a stout and gregarious fellow with a quick smile, curly black hair and some black stubble around his chin, is enjoying his mom’s company. They do, however, have divergent views on Syrian politics, which lead to lively exchanges between them.
Al-Husseini said that his mother believes Syrian President Bashar Assad is a good person who is being corrupted by his Cabinet. In contrast, Al-Husseini, a Virginia Tech graduate who has lived in the United States for more than a decade, says if the president cannot control his own Cabinet, he is not fit to lead the nation. But he distrusts the uprising, too, saying it arose as an honest movement that has been hijacked by outside forces.
Martin said both attitudes are common, especially among Western-educated and Western-leaning Syrians.
Many educated Syrians despise the Assad regime, Martin said, because of its brutal police-state tactics, but they dislike the Saudis even more, and they believe Saudi money is financing the uprising.
Al-Husseini’s mother knows of the unrest in Syria in the 1940s and 1950s, even though she didn’t see it first-hand. Each successive authoritarian regime has surpassed the previous ones in ruthlessness and brutality.
Martin said that many Syrians today fear that Assad’s rather secular authoritarian regime will be replaced by a religious authoritarian regime.
For now, Kayali can do little but wait.
She watches a lot of Middle Eastern TV stations via satellite to keep apprised of developments in her home country. And her son is teaching her a few words of English.
When a guest thanked her for coffee recently, she smiled and said, in English, “You’re welcome.”
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