How many people do you know with three names? Probably none. Well, now you do…
Hi , my name is Khalid, Halit, Kal-leed. These three names are the symbol of the three distinct phases of my life. So distinct that I feel there are three distinct men standing before you right now. They are all in me.
My passion for photography started in Damascus. That’s where I was known as Khalid. I moved to Damascus when I was 14 years old. I lived in the old city, an area full of diversity and culture. My life there ignited in me a lust for travel and exploring other countries.
Since I couldn’t do that at the time, I had to settle for movies. I adore movies. I always have. Naturally, that attracted me to a job I found at the little video store in my neighborhood. It was this little tiny room with barely enough space for a counter, but that was all I needed. It felt like a pharmacy where I can prescribe films to fit a customer’s mood. The shop was close to many embassies. Many Ambassadors from all over the world would come and I would prescribe them movies based on our conversations. I had a lot of fun times working at this DVD store.
I used to look through the work of Christopher Nolan, David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick, and imagined how I’d make the different characters meet across films. After just six months, I got promoted to a manager. That’s when the owner of the shop bought the full-size storefronts to our right and left. We became the biggest DVD store in Damascus.
Even though I was enjoying the thrills of working with something I have a passion for, I didn’t forget about school. I went to the university of Damascus, and studied media and journalism. Half way through my degree, I got a job with an NGO doing interactive theater for kids so I quit my video store gig and started this new venture. We used to go all around the country, stopping in little villages for a week or so, performing, conducting workshops. We used to do shows in theaters, lead two hour classes on how to debate. It was demanding work, but I loved it. This was around 2009/2010. Right before the Arab Spring.
There had been uprisings in Syria before, but the leaders of the country were always able to contain the situation. This time, as the movement grew and grew, it looked like we needed a change. It was exciting for a while, to see all my people out in the streets, marching and demanding their rights. But deep down in my heart I knew something terrible is about to happen.
No one was killed in my family. But I lost many friends. I took a lot of photos trying to show the reality around me, which was dangerous. If I had been caught with a camera, I could have been shot on the spot. As a matter of fact, many of my friends were detained and tortured. I was scared for my life.
Days went by like this until one day I received a letter from the government to join the military. They were recruiting me to partake in this violence. But I’m not one who can kill his own people. I had 15 days to escape.
I fled the country with my two pieces of luggage, a stack of photos I had removed from a photo album, The business card of my favorite Syrian film director, Omar Amiralay, three small paintings, my camera, a lock of my ex-girlfriend’s hair. A silver bracelet with my name I had since I was a boy. And jasmine seeds from Damascus.
I chose to go to Turkey, mainly because it was one of the few places I could enter without a visa at the time. This is where I was called me Halit.
When I first arrived in Istanbul, in 2013, there were very few refugees. By 2015, Turkey flooded with Syrians, including my younger brother, who flew to Turkey a year after I did. he slipped in right before the Turkish government shot down the border.
In Istanbul, I started working more in cinematography. I did a lot of freelance work for foreign media outlets. I was a cameraman for a German channel, a Finnish channel, and even worked with a producer for Oprah. I also worked on a photography and art therapy project called Inside/Outside that targets Syrian kids in refugee schools.
As more refugees arrived, the anti-refugee sentiment spread. The legal bureaucracy became impossible to navigate, and the rules were always shifting. I wasn’t protected under the law, I didn’t speak Turkish, and the legal hoops they made me jump through made it harder and harder to live there. Some friends tried to convince me to take an illegal boat to Europe. I considered it many many times, but there was 50% chance I wouldn’t survive the trip. I was losing hope. I thought I should forget about a better life.
I had to battle these ugly feelings for three years until one day I got a call from the International Organization for Migration telling me I must leave Turkey to the US in 10 days. Finally, I could walk through the international gate at Istanbul’s airport, I was able to escape the cage which I wasn’t allowed to leave for four and a half years.
When I came here, I became Kal-leed. Or, whatever is the easiest for you all to pronounce my name?
More has happened here in four months than during the four previous years in Turkey: I received a scholarship for dramatic therapy, I’m a member at SF MoMA. I have had a couple of jobs in LA with filmmakers producing documentaries. I went to Burning Man.
My long-term career goal is to continue a documentary I started back in Turkey about four Syrian families who I met during my stay there and who were resettled in the U.S.
On the personal side, all I know is that I miss my family a lot: my brother who is still back in Istanbul, my parents in Damascus, who I haven’t seen in five years. My greatest hope in life is to reunite with my father again.
All a refugee really wants, most immediately, is a plan. A path forward. This is the gift the IRC gave me. When I arrived here, Rafi from IRC came to greet me at the airport. I asked him if I could visit a friend in Chicago. I will never forget his response. “You are free like a bird,” he said. That meant the world to me.
I know this feels like a strange time in the United States, but consider this: here, I have a license that looks just like yours. It doesn’t say where I’m from, or label me as a refugee. It just says that I live here. And it says my name. Khalid, Halit, or Ka-leed. Just a human being with a dream.
Khalid was resettled in Oakland in the spring of 2017. He is a freelance photographer & videographer.