National News

‘I Was Not Going to Accept It’: After Captivity, Blind Syrian Forges Path to U.S.

Posted December 25, 2017 8:13 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Hope often came in subtle waves of clarity for Amier Agha. He would recall his younger brother’s new, prosperous life in San Francisco, which invariably made him think of images he had seen of sprawling metropolises and the New York City skyline. The thoughts filled him with warmth and wonder.

If all else failed to distract him from his incarceration by the Syrian government, he could sense through the darkness the presence of his best friend, Saeed Hadidy, manacled nearby.

Hadidy had always been there for Agha, 23, even after Agha and his siblings and their parents left Syria and resettled in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004. Years of prosperity were dashed when the Syrian civil war began in 2011. The Agha family’s business, a bus company that had shuttled customers between Yemen, Syria and Saudi Arabia, closed.

All the while, Agha’s eyesight slowly faded, a congenital failure that also afflicted his brother. Navigating Saudi Arabia, where disabled foreigners are seen as hopeless, challenged him.

With treatment options sparse and no money coming in, Agha returned with his family to a home they owned in Damascus, the Syrian capital, in 2012. The family’s difficulties continued there. The Aghas’ home was burglarized. During the uprising and war, a cousin of Agha’s who had joined the Syrian army died fighting. An uncle was never heard from again.

But there was good news for one of Agha’s brothers, Laurel, who also lost his eyesight. He received a student visa to study in the United States around the time of the family’s return to Syria, and applied for asylum shortly after arriving in San Francisco.

In Damascus, Agha came to rely on Hadidy, who acted as an indispensable guide.

Around the city, military checkpoints were used for conscription. And young men like Agha and Hadidy, who did not want to flee the country to live impoverished lives away from their relatives, took risks by walking the city.

On Oct. 18, 2013, the two and another friend were stopped at a checkpoint by Syrian Arab Republic fighters, aligned with government forces overseen by President Bashar Assad.

“Why aren’t you in the army?” a soldier asked the three, who were in their late teens.

Hadidy and the friend said they had legally paid for a deferment, once a major source of income for the government. Agha told the soldiers he was blind, though young men with medical exemptions were often assigned to administrative roles in the military.

“Your eyes are good,” the soldier said. The three were arrested and placed in separate, dark holding cells.

Over two days, they went without food. Water was provided twice. Agha was beaten. Then, the three young men were brought together, and without warning, Hadidy was executed.

“That was their way of putting pressure on us psychologically,” Agha said, recounting his story through an interpreter in a conference room in Manhattan this fall. He kept his hands clasped in his lap below a table; underneath, his knee bounced.

“They brought us together and killed him,” Agha said.

Finding Strength to Flee

Because he was blind, Agha was released; his other friend was also freed. At home, Agha fell into a depression over all he had lost.

“I was not going to accept it,” Agha said of his best friend’s death and his health. “All the time I called hospitals to find a solution. I was not content.” He relied more on his family for emotional and physical support, especially his mother, who helped build his self-confidence between bouts of uncertainty and woe.

By mid-2017, more than 5 million refugees had left Syria, but passages out of the country could be blocked and treacherous. All cross-border travel was banned for men between 18 and 42.

As the conflict worsened, the family set their minds on escape and applied for visas to the United States. Agha’s father, Samr, arrived in San Francisco on a visa to visit Laurel in April 2014. From there, he continued to apply for derivative immigration status for the entire family.

The next year, Agha’s mother, Norhan, led the remaining family members to escape, telling border guards that they were seeking medical treatment in Beirut for Agha’s vision. They were held at the border for nearly two days, but passes were issued and they fled to Istanbul. In Turkey, stumped by the visa and admissions process, Agha started to lose hope of coming to America and began learning German.

“I was thinking of going alone to Europe,” Agha said, “but my mother told me, ‘You are not going.’ She always had hopes that coming to America will be a reality.”

In January 2017, the family received mixed news after interviews at the U.S. Consulate in Ankara, Turkey. The visas for Agha’s mother, two sisters and a younger brother had been approved, but Agha and another brother required further security checks because of their travels to Saudi Arabia.

The family decided to wait for all the visas, and on Jan. 27, Agha and the other brother received theirs. “This was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Agha said.

But later that day, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven mostly Muslim nations, including Syria, from entering the United States. Syrian refugees’ entry was barred indefinitely.

A small crowd had gathered outside Kennedy International Airport in New York to protest what civil rights activists and lawyers there saw as unconstitutional and illegal detentions. The protests grew into a national outcry.

“We felt very bad after the ban,” Agha said. “But then when we saw people protesting and demonstrating in New York and other cities against the ban, we regained hope.”

He added, “If it wasn’t for those people, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Before the announcement in September of a new travel ban, which rolled back some of the previous restrictions but still included Syrian refugees, a federal judge in Seattle blocked the executive order on Feb. 3 and allowed for families like Agha’s to enter the country. They left as soon as possible, arriving in New York City on Feb. 5.

Toward a Glittering Future

Immigration and refugee services at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, helped the family acclimate to their new lives.

Agha was connected to the Catholic Guild for the Blind, where he is now enrolled in mobility and language courses. Having never received formal services for the blind, Agha is learning basics like cooking, grooming and doing laundry; he is also learning English and hopes to one day study psychology.

In September, to help with Agha’s studies, Catholic Charities used $383 from the Neediest Cases Fund to buy him an iPad. The organization also successfully applied for support through the state’s Commission for the Blind — which supplied Agha with an audio recorder, batteries and a battery charger — and for Supplemental Security Income.

Agha has settled on Staten Island with his parents and several of his siblings, paying $2,400 a month in rent. One brother works at CVS and is enrolled in college classes. Agha’s father drives for Uber. Agha travels by Access-a-Ride into Manhattan. He says that he can tell by smell which borough he is in.

“I had a dream, seven years ago, that I was living in New York,” he said. “I had an image of New York in my head, and it turned out to be just the one I had.” Oftentimes Agha will ask his mobility instructor to walk with him down Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, or he goes it alone to the Library for the Blind downtown.

Sometimes he visits Trump Tower, which he calls his favorite building in the city. His eyes perceive it as a fraction of a light, proof, to his mind, that darkness is never without light.

In fact, he says it glitters.