Meet Our 2017 Friend of Freedom

If you haven’t met Dr. Heval Kelli yet, you’ve probably read about him or seen a story about his journey from Syrian refugee to American doctor and community advocate. He says he’s “just returning the favor”.

Heval and his family are Syrian Kurds, an oppressed group in a variety of Middle Eastern countries. His family was forced to leave Syria in the late ’90s after his father, a lawyer, was beaten and arrested by police – a culmination of their persecution as Kurds. So, the Kelli family decided to flee Syria, going first to Turkey and then Germany in 1996. In Germany, Heval’s family had to reapply for asylum every six months and there was little chance he would have been able to attend college as a non-resident.

“We were always prone to lose everything,” Heval says of where he’s lived. “In Syria we had a great life but it was not safe. In Germany, we were safe and had no future. In the U.S., we were safe and had a future.”

Less than two weeks after 9/11, Heval along with his younger brother, father, and mother arrived in Georgia through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. One of Heval’s most memorable experiences of first coming to the United States happened within the first five minutes of his arrival to an airport in New York. A businessman approached him and attempted to speak with him in English, which he had not yet learned. “He thought we were just Americans like him. It made us feel the love in this country.”

When he and his family arrived in Clarkston, Georgia, they “experienced the same love” there as during that encounter in the airport. The Kelli family was welcomed by staff from the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta (the predecessor to RRISA and, now, New American Pathways) and co-sponsoring members of All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

Over more than 15 years in Georgia, both organizations have been a strong part of Heval and his brother’s support system. In the years following, both Heval and his brother pursued careers in medicine with their help. The entire family gained citizenship in 2006 through the help of New American Pathways and will now join in the celebration of some of Georgia’s newest citizens at Red, White and NEW next month.

Heval spends much of his time working with underserved communities, investing in them like others once did with him. These investitures have paved his success and a path to receiving New American Pathways’ 2017 Friend of Freedom award.

Since those first days, when he was just a new American teenager working as a dishwasher and dreaming of his future, Dr. Heval Kelli has graduated from Morehouse School of Medicine and become a Cardiology Fellow at Emory University School of Medicine. “You can lose everything, clothes and materials, but not your education. Medicine is my fifth language. No one can take away your language. No one can take that away from you,” Heval says about pursuing his education.

On August 26, Dr. Heval Kelli will accept the “Friend of Freedom” award at New AP’s fifth-annual Red, White and NEW event. This award is presented annually to a leader who has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to refugees in Georgia. Get your ticket here before early bird pricing ends on August 1!

Photo credit: Savannah Pratt and unknown

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