Dr. Heval Kelli (center in scrubs), a former Syrian refugee and current cardiology fellow at Emory University, speaks with medical students at the Clarkston Community Health Center in 2017. Kelli, who  has previously volunteered at the clinic, is a Kurd who still has family in northeastern Syria where the withdrawal of U.S. troops has cleared the way for the Turkish military to attack U.S. allies who had helped fight ISIS. BITA HONARVAR/SPECIAL
Photo: Bita Honarvar
Photo: Bita Honarvar

Atlanta Kurds worry about aftermath of U.S. military pullout in Syria

Emory cardiologist Heval Kelli thinks of his 5-month-old son when he hears news reports on the bloody ramifications of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, where they buffered Kurds, including his aunts and uncles.

“I am glad he was born in America,” Kelli says of the infant. “He is born in a country of freedom. … That is the best gift I can give him.”

But Kelli and other Kurds in metro Atlanta are grappling with the actions of the United States, a nation they consider home, and the impact on family members far away.

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Kurds — an often-repressed ethnic group mostly spread across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran — are U.S. allies who reportedly lost thousands of people in the fight against a common enemy, the Islamic State. President Trump’s decision to pull out the U.S. military cleared the way for Turkish forces to attack Syrian Kurds, some of whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contends are terrorists and wants out of a nearly 20-mile zone near the border.

Emory cardiology fellow Heval Kelli was a child in Syria. An ethnic Kurd, Kelli’s parents fled the Middle Eastern nation with him and his brother. They eventually settled in metro Atlanta. They still have family in parts of Syria now under attack by Turkish forces after the withdrawal of U.S. troops left Kurdish allies exposed. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That’s led to an outcry from many in this country. The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan resolution rebuking the U.S. withdrawal.

Locally, the mayor and city council of Clarkston, a big resettlement spot for refugees of many nations, have proclaimed Sunday as a day “to stand with our Kurdish friends and neighbors, as they continue to be marginalized, oppressed, and abandoned by governments both in the region of the Middle East and around the world.” A gathering has been scheduled at the Clarkston City Hall in DeKalb County starting at 5 p.m. Sunday.

“Kurdish people and especially the Kurds of Syria have been very brave and very strong against ISIS. … They have given their lives and there is nothing to show for it.” —Soleen Karim, a 30-year-old Lilburn architectural designer and former refugee

Kelli, who lives in Lilburn and is a U.S. citizen, said his family fled repression in Syria when he and his brother were children. They eventually settled in metro Atlanta in 2001.

He has aunts and uncles in northern Syria.

“They are helpless,” he said. In brief messages, relatives said some of their neighbors have fled; others stayed, fearing there was no safe place to go.

“As an American, I am ashamed we left our allies in the Middle East who fought for us. As a Kurd, I feel betrayed that we left my people hanging on the border without any protection,” he said.

Soleen Karim (second from the right) is a U.S. citizen and former refugee who is now an architectural designer living in Gwinnett County. She has a non-profit that built in a refugee camp in Iraq, where this photo was taken. An ethnic Kurd, Karim said she worries that another generation of Kurdish children will be displaced by war after the U.S. withdrew forces from northern Syria, leaving Kurds there open for attack by Turkish troops. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Kelli made his comments before Vice President Mike Pence announced on Thursday afternoon that Turkey had agreed to a temporary ceasefire so Kurds could retreat. Others suggested that would allow Turkey to lock in territory it has captured.

Soleen Karim, a 30-year-old Lilburn architectural designer and former refugee, said she worries about another generation of Kurdish children who will be displaced by war, as she was. Her parents fled Iraq. She was born in Iran and eventually made it to the U.S. with her her family. She is an American citizen.

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“We want to think of the future as being more progressive and yet we are displacing so many more kids. It is just more harm being done and more lives being taken,” she said. “Kurdish people and especially the Kurds of Syria have been very brave and very strong against ISIS. … They have given their lives and there is nothing to show for it.”

In some areas of the Middle East, Kurds have been barred from learning their own language in schools or flying Kurdish flags. Kelli said in Syria his father at first wasn’t allowed to name him Heval, which means “friend” in their native tongue. It sounded too Kurdish, he was told.

After World War I, Western allies planned for an independent Kurdish state, but later abandoned the idea.

“That was the first betrayal,” Karim said. The latest one, she said, is what’s happening now.

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