A Syrian boy who lost his arms in a refugee camp bomb blast is thriving in his new life in Massachusetts. But the fate of the family he left behind to seek medical treatment in the U.S. remains uncertain.
Over the past year, 11-year-old Ahmad Alkhalaf has attended Democratic President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union, been fitted for prosthetic arms and enrolled in the local public school. He’s also learned to live with his disability, taking swimming, gymnastics and martial arts lessons.
But as the 11-year-old Ahmad looks to another year in his adopted home, he says his dream is to be reunited with his mother and four surviving siblings, who are living in Istanbul.
“I want my mom to come here,” he said on a recent Saturday as he kicked around a soccer ball in a park. “I feel like I’m losing her. It’s been too long. I can’t take it anymore.”
Ahmad’s father, Dirgam Alkhalaf, said those hopes largely hinge on whether Republican President-elect Donald Trump follows through on his pledge to curtail the flow of Syrians and Muslims to the U.S.
Alkhalaf has applied for asylum and hopes to petition for the rest of the family if he and Ahmad are permitted to stay.
“I can only be hopeful he’ll do the right thing,” Alkhalaf said of Trump through an interpreter. “No matter what people say, I’m optimistic.”
Trump transition team officials didn’t return emails seeking comment on the family’s case.
Alkhalaf said he can’t return to Turkey after renouncing his temporary residency status there. Returning to Syria, where the Sunni Muslim family lived just outside the battle-scarred city of Aleppo, also isn’t an option.
“There is nothing left in Syria for us. Our home is destroyed; the government is out to get us,” he said, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which he says conducted the 2013 bombing. “I’ve got nowhere to go if the U.S. doesn’t want me.”
The father and son have been living among a rotating group of Muslim families since their arrival in June 2015 on a medical visa for Ahmad.
Alkhalaf works as a security guard at a mosque after receiving his work permit in July. He hopes to take his driver’s license exam soon.
The emotional strain of separation has taken its toll on the family, Alkhalaf said.
His youngest son in Turkey has developed asthma-like problems, his wife is being treated for high blood pressure and Ahmad doesn’t always sleep well, a problem that started with night terrors following the bomb blasts.
“Emotionally, I’m drained,” Alkhalaf said. “If we were all together, I think a lot of us would feel better. It’s half the battle.”
Ahmad talks with his mother often and knows she’s struggling to provide for his siblings. The family largely lives off the charity of the Muslim community in New England and what Alkhalaf can send from his wages.
Ahmad said he tries to perk his mother up by telling her about the new things he’s experiencing.
“I try to make her happy, but it’s hard,” Ahmad said.
He enrolled in the fourth grade this past fall at a school in the Boston suburbs. He is awaiting a more advanced pair of prosthetic arms. And he hopes to join a soccer team this spring.
Officials at Heights Elementary say Ahmad’s stresses haven’t appeared to affect his schooling. If anything, they say, they’re impressed with how quickly he has embraced his new environment, where he is receiving physical and occupational therapy, one-on-one reading and math help and other support.