From dishwasher to doctor: A Syrian refugee achieves his American dream

A long perilous road brought Dr. Heval Kelli to Atlanta after he and his family lost almost everything fleeing persecution in their native Syria.

A Muslim, Kelli arrived here just two weeks after one of this nation’s darkest moments in history — the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And when he and his family got here, they relied on the help of a generous Christian church and fellow refugees. He started out washing dishes at a local restaurant and is now a cardiologist at Emory University.

The 34-year-old Lilburn resident is achieving his American dream by helping immigrants and refugees. Meanwhile, he is speaking up for them amid President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which is sharply curtailing this nation’s refugee resettlement program. 

“When you look at someone like a refugee or an immigrant or a minority or someone in need who you think could serve this country, please look at them as an investment — an opportunity to invest back in our country,” Kelli said recently after receiving a humanitarian award from New American Pathways, an Atlanta-area refugee resettlement agency. 

Read more about Kelli, see photos from his journey and watch a video about him in the latest installment of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s award-winning Personal Journeys series here on

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