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Syrian Refugee Tries To Restart In Texas, After Long, Painful Journey


Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will increase the number of refugees it takes in over the next two years by almost 50 percent. The U.S. will aim to accept 100,000 refugees by 2017. This should allow for an increase in the number of Syrians who are fleeing an awful civil war. Over the last 12 months, the U.S. has taken in only about 1,500 Syrian refugees. And we wanted to meet one of them. His name is Kamal. We're using only his first name at his request to protect people he knows who are still in Syria. Since January, Kamal has been living in Houston, Texas with his wife and three children. Even though his English is not yet fluent, one thing is very clear when he speaks, how grateful he is for his life in America.

KAMAL: Thank you very much, United States. Thank you very much. American people, thank you very much.

GREENE: Now, before leaving Syria, Kamal says he was a chef with his own catering company in Damascus. When the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, Kamal took part in peaceful demonstrations along with thousands of others demanding greater political freedom. The regime of Bashar al-Assad responded with a violent crackdown, which developed into Syria's civil war. The next part of Kamal's story is pretty disturbing, and it might be difficult for some to hear. It speaks to the harrowing experiences that some Syrians have endured. As a protester, Kamal found himself in and out of jail.

KAMAL: I arrested four times. And the first time, February 15, 2011 and next time, between April 2011, and took off my kidney.

GREENE: Took off my kidney, those are the words he said right there. Kamal says he was taken to a military hospital in Damascus. And he says his right kidney was removed, even though he was perfectly healthy. He says they did worse to others.

KAMAL: And another people take off eyes, take off liver.

GREENE: Kamal told us that he suffered sexual abuse as well and also electric shocks. Now, NPR was not able to independently verify his story. But we have learned that the United Nations is investigating allegations of organ removal by warring parties in Syria. Anne Richard is the assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration. And she tells us Syrian refugees being accepted into the United States are often the more extreme cases.

ANNE RICHARD: When we offer places to refugees, we work with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to find some of the most vulnerable among the refugees, people for whom there really is no going home ever again.

GREENE: Now, Kamal tells us that after he was tortured, he was released. And what he says happened next convinced him that he needed to leave Syria. At times here, he speaks through his interpreter. Kamal begins by telling us that military forces from the Assad regime entered his home and brutalized his 6-year-old son.

KAMAL: Next time military Assad regime coming into to my house in Damascus, push my son - my son, in this time, he's all 6 years.

GREENE: Six years old. So you made it home after being tortured, electrocuted, having your kidney taken out. You made it home, and then people from the government came to your house?

KAMAL: Yes, and push my son - it's big problem in his hand.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken).

KAMAL: (Through interpreter) They hit - they hit him with the back of their gun, their rifle.

GREENE: Now, he says the same people who broke his son's hand also set fire to the furniture in his home and also destroyed his car. And this is when he fled with his family.

KAMAL: (Through interpreter) I ran away from a place to place.

Going to Cairo, Egypt, I live in the Cairo two years.

GREENE: And so what was life like in Cairo, in Egypt, for those two years?

KAMAL: (Through interpreter) I was afraid to do any documentation or show any papers or documentation for me because I was afraid of the Syrian embassy.

GREENE: And so what did you do to try and get out, to go somewhere else? I mean, were you filling out any paperwork at all? What were you doing?

KAMAL: (Through interpreter) I applied for the United Nations program. They transferred me to the immigration department, and the decision of resettle me in the United States was taken.

GREENE: Can you tell me about that day that you found out you would be going to the United States?

KAMAL: Yeah, I'm very - I'm very happy. People in the immigration tell me, you like going to United States? I tell his, yes, sure (laughter). It's my dream for my future and my children. I have three kids and their future in the United States is very good.

GREENE: How long did it take to get to the United States after you found out this news?

KAMAL: Maybe eight months.

GREENE: That's a long time.

KAMAL: No, it's short time. It's very good time, eight months.

GREENE: In fact, this entire process took over a year and a half. Kamal arrived in the United States in January. And I asked him how he felt when he first landed.

KAMAL: Happy and... (Foreign language spoken).


KAMAL: Happy and worried.

GREENE: What were you worried about?

KAMAL: A new life, and I'm not speak English. It's new people, new everything (laughter). And I have now friend American and Spanish and Arab people.

GREENE: Now, when Kamal and his family first arrived in Houston, a local Syrian group bought him a car. He now has a job. He's working as a data entry clerk. His wife is pregnant with their fourth child. When I asked Kamal if he would ever return to Syria if that were possible at some point, there was a long pause.

KAMAL: (Foreign language spoken).

GREENE: "America is the country that opened its arms to me," he said, "and this will be my home." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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