Fi2W is featuring stories by students in the Feet in 2 Worlds journalism course at The New School.
The first thing Ahlam does every morning when she wakes up in her parents’ apartment in Brooklyn is go online and visit Syrian Facebook pages. She checks to see if there has been any fighting in Ariha, her hometown in Syria’s Idlib province. Then the 28-year-old ophthalmologist calls her husband Ismael, who still lives in Ariha. The only way for them to communicate is over a shaky landline telephone, since there is no Internet or cellular service in the northwestern town. Most of the rest of her day she spends at home, taking care of her newborn baby.
At the end of March Ahlem faces a wrenching decision. She took a maternity leave from her medical residency in Syria and came to the U.S. to give birth to her daughter in the safety of an American hospital. Failure to return means she will lose her medical residency. It would take years before she could practice medicine again in the U.S. But going back to Syria with her baby in the midst of a civil war will be dangerous.
Ahlem’s family in the U.S. is trying to convince her to stay, but she is concerned about consequences even more devastating than losing her career. “I don’t want to stay here because if things will get worse there I won’t be able to go back anymore and see my husband,” she explained.
Ahlem has a green card, which allows her to live legally in the U.S., but her husband does not. Every day she checks for any new decisions that could bring Ismael to live with her in Brooklyn. So far there are no options.
The unrest in Syria has resulted in the creation of over 907,000 refugees who fled to neighboring countries. Thousands more received asylum-seeker status in European countries. Last March, the Obama administration granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Syrians already in the country. But the U.S. has not opened a pathway to asylum for Syrians such as Ahlam’s husband, who don’t have a U.S. visa. Arriving in the U.S. became even more difficult for Syrians after the U.S. embassy in Damascus officially closed last year.
As a supporter of the Syrian opposition, Ahlem felt she had no choice but to come to New York to give birth to her baby. The hospital she works for in Idlib city is far from her town and only treats supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The three medical centers that used to operate in Ariha were bombed and are not working anymore.
“We are without electricity, without water, without gas, without fuel,” Ahlam said while playing recordings on her iPhone of shootings just outside her window in Ariha. “You wake up in the morning; if you hear gunfire you stay home, if you don’t you go to work. When I go to work I may find the bus (is running) or I may not find the bus. We can’t use private cars or taxis because the army will take them from us.”
The beginning of the Syrian uprising is considered to be March 15th when simultaneous demonstrations occurred in major cities throughout Syria. The UN recently estimated that the death toll from the conflict is approaching 70,000.
Ahlam and Ismael met in medical school in Aleppo. She was in the third year of her studies and he was in his sixth year. At their wedding, in August 2009, Ahlam’s parents celebrated with her, but her three brothers couldn’t attend. Members of her family had already started immigrating to the U.S.
Ahlam visited them in Brooklyn from time to time, stayed for long periods and attained a green card. But she always maintained her connections to Syria. Initially she remained in her home country to pursue her medical studies. As the political situation deteriorated, she continued to stay with her husband who has his family and a private medical practice there.
It’s been more than three months since Ahlam has seen Ismael, and he hasn’t met his daughter yet – whom they named Lauren. “My husband is there now and we are in this together,” the delicate looking Ahlam stated firmly. “When I’m here and not knowing what’s going on there my mind is always busy.”
Despite the risks, if Ahlam doesn’t find a way to bring her husband to New York, she is determined to return to Ariha. “The last two years were horrible,” she said, “you have no idea and no one here can really understand, but I’ll take the chance to go back.”
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation.