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

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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.

Mr. Hadidy had always been there for Mr. Agha, 23, even after Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Agha’s who had joined the Syrian Army died fighting. An uncle was never heard from again.

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But there was good news for one of Mr. 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, Mr. Agha came to rely on Mr. Hadidy, who acted as an indispensable guide.

Around the city, military checkpoints were used for conscription. And young men like Mr. Agha and Mr. 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 al-Assad.

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

Mr. Hadidy and the friend said they had legally paid for a deferment, once a major source of income for the government. Mr. 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. Mr. Agha was beaten. Then, the three young men were brought together, and without warning, Mr. Hadidy was executed.

“That was their way of putting pressure on us psychologically,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Agha said.

Finding Strength to Flee

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

Continue reading the main story

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.

Mr. Hadidy had always been there for Mr. Agha, 23, even after Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Agha came to rely on Mr. Hadidy, who acted as an indispensable guide.

Around the city, military checkpoints were used for conscription. And young men like Mr. Agha and Mr. 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 al-Assad.

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

Mr. Hadidy and the friend said they had legally paid for a deferment, once a major source of income for the government. Mr. 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. Mr. Agha was beaten. Then, the three young men were brought together, and without warning, Mr. Hadidy was executed.

“That was their way of putting pressure on us psychologically,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Agha said.

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

“I was not going to accept it,” Mr. 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 five 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. Mr. 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, Mr. Agha’s mother, Norhan, led the remaining family members to escape, telling border guards that they were seeking medical treatment in Beirut, Lebanon, for Mr. 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, Mr. Agha started to lose hope of coming to America and began learning German.

“I was thinking of going alone to Europe,” Mr. 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 American Consulate in Ankara, Turkey. The visas for Mr. Agha’s mother, two sisters and a younger brother had been approved, but Mr. 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, Mr. Agha and the other brother received theirs. “This was like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Agha said.

But later that day, President 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. Agha’s to enter the country. They left as soon as possible, arriving in New York City on Feb. 5.

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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Agha with an audio recorder, batteries and a battery charger — and for Supplemental Security Income.

Mr. 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. Mr. Agha’s father drives for Uber. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Nytimes

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Syria

Last thing Syria needs after beating ISIS is another conflict – German FM on Turkish op

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Investigate chemical incidents in Syria instead of blaming Damascus & distorting our views – Moscow

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72 Turkish Jets Bomb U.S.-Backed Kurdish Militias in Syria

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Photo
Plumes of smoke rise after airstrikes in northwest Syria on Saturday, as seen from the the border town of Kilis, Turkey. Credit Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

ISTANBUL — Turkish jets bombed the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey vowed to crush Kurdish militant forces across northern Syria to remove what he said was a terrorist threat.

The Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that jets bombed more than 100 targets, including an air base, in the first day of air operations against Kurdish militias. Fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army also crossed the border into the enclave and engaged Kurdish militants, the agency reported.

Mr. Erdogan has pressed ahead with the offensive despite warnings from the United States that it would further destabilize war-torn Syria. Syria and Russia expressed milder objections.

The Turkish president said “no one can say a word” about the operation.

“Beginning from the west, step by step, we will annihilate the terror corridor up to the Iraqi border,” Mr. Erdogan told a local congress of his Justice and Development Party in the city of Kutahya on Saturday.

“No one can say a word,” he went on. “Whatever happens, we do not care anymore at all. Now we only care about what happens on the ground.”

Photo
Syrian rebel fighters near the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday. Credit Omar Haj Kadour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Soon after the president spoke, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the offensive had started, at 5 p.m. Saturday. The operation, named “Olive Branch,” aims to eliminate terrorists and establish security along Turkey’s border with Syria and to save “friends and brothers” from the terrorists’ oppression, the ministry said in a statement.

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Bekir Bozdag, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, said on Twitter that Turkey would respect Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and would pull out of the region once the target was achieved.

He added that the military campaign was not against the Syrian government or its people but against terrorist organizations. He named the Kurdish Y.P.G. and P.K.K. groups, as well as the Islamic State, as the targeted organizations.

“The only target of the operation is the terrorist groups and the terrorists as well as their barracks, shelters, positions, weapons, vehicles and equipment,” he said. “Civilians are never targeted. Every kind of planning has been done to avoid any damage to civilians.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern at the assault and called for restraint. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that it was withdrawing its troops and military police from the enclave to avoid any conflict.

Photo
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey addressed supporters in Usak, Turkey, on Saturday. Credit Pool photo by Kayhan Ozer

In a later statement Russia blamed the United States for the clashes.

“Provocative actions by the U.S., aimed at isolating regions with predominantly Kurdish population, were the main factors that contributed to the development of a crisis in this part of Syria,” the statement read.

Yet despite Russian reservations, it appears there was high level communication between Turkey and Russia on the operation. The chief of staff of Turkey’s army, Hulusi Akar, who is commanding the operation, visited Moscow on Thursday with the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan.

And despite its expression of concern, Russia cooperated on deconfliction efforts by allowing Turkish jets into Syrian airspace and by removing its troops form Afrin, Turkish analysts said.

The Turkish Army announced Saturday evening that 72 fighter jets had returned safely to their bases.

The general command of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mainly Syrian Kurdish rebel force that has led the United States-backed fight against the Islamic State, appealed to Turkey to cease its operation in Afrin, calling it an unjustifiable aggression against the Syrian people that would undermine the fight against the Islamic State.

“If attacked, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves and our people,” the command said in a statement, “but we state in front of the world that we harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey.”

Photo
A Syrian rebel fighter watches as smoke billows from a Kurdish People’s Protection Units position in Afrin, Syria, on Saturday. Credit Nazeer Al-Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Syrians in the region expressed alarm, as the aerial bombardment hit outlying villages along the Turkish border.

Civilians were fearful and were leaving Afrin and the villages along the border, a resident of Afrin said. He asked that his name be withheld from publication out of concern for his safety.

A lawmaker in Syria’s Parliament expressed concern that Turkey was looking to create strife among Syrians by using Arab members of the rebel Free Syrian Army to fight Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian government and some Kurdish militias were negotiating to raise Syrian government flags over public buildings in Afrin to try to avert the Turkish bombing, the lawmaker said. The lawmaker added there was a split among Kurds about whether to accept the Syrian government’s retaking of Afrin, in a bid to end the Turkish offensive, or whether Kurds should maintain control and resist the offensive.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected during the early days of the crisis, sent out a forlorn appeal to all parties to abide by an agreement forged in March between American-backed Kurdish rebels and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters on the control of villages around Afrin.

“Given previous discussions about this settlement to reduce further bloodshed and lives lost on both sides,” he wrote in an email, “it is important to consider a return to this agreement to reduce tensions.”

Continue reading the main story

ISTANBUL — Turkish jets bombed the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin on Saturday as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey vowed to crush Kurdish militant forces across northern Syria to remove what he said was a terrorist threat.

The Turkish news agency Anadolu reported that jets bombed more than 100 targets, including an air base, in the first day of air operations against Kurdish militias. Fighters of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army also crossed the border into the enclave and engaged Kurdish militants, the agency reported.

Mr. Erdogan has pressed ahead with the offensive despite warnings from the United States that it would further destabilize war-torn Syria. Syria and Russia expressed milder objections.

The Turkish president said “no one can say a word” about the operation.

“Beginning from the west, step by step, we will annihilate the terror corridor up to the Iraqi border,” Mr. Erdogan told a local congress of his Justice and Development Party in the city of Kutahya on Saturday.

“No one can say a word,” he went on. “Whatever happens, we do not care anymore at all. Now we only care about what happens on the ground.”

Soon after the president spoke, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced that the offensive had started, at 5 p.m. Saturday. The operation, named “Olive Branch,” aims to eliminate terrorists and establish security along Turkey’s border with Syria and to save “friends and brothers” from the terrorists’ oppression, the ministry said in a statement.

Bekir Bozdag, the deputy prime minister of Turkey, said on Twitter that Turkey would respect Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, and would pull out of the region once the target was achieved.

He added that the military campaign was not against the Syrian government or its people but against terrorist organizations. He named the Kurdish Y.P.G. and P.K.K. groups, as well as the Islamic State, as the targeted organizations.

“The only target of the operation is the terrorist groups and the terrorists as well as their barracks, shelters, positions, weapons, vehicles and equipment,” he said. “Civilians are never targeted. Every kind of planning has been done to avoid any damage to civilians.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed concern at the assault and called for restraint. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that it was withdrawing its troops and military police from the enclave to avoid any conflict.

In a later statement Russia blamed the United States for the clashes.

“Provocative actions by the U.S., aimed at isolating regions with predominantly Kurdish population, were the main factors that contributed to the development of a crisis in this part of Syria,” the statement read.

Yet despite Russian reservations, it appears there was high level communication between Turkey and Russia on the operation. The chief of staff of Turkey’s army, Hulusi Akar, who is commanding the operation, visited Moscow on Thursday with the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, Hakan Fidan.

And despite its expression of concern, Russia cooperated on deconfliction efforts by allowing Turkish jets into Syrian airspace and by removing its troops form Afrin, Turkish analysts said.

The Turkish Army announced Saturday evening that 72 fighter jets had returned safely to their bases.

The general command of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the mainly Syrian Kurdish rebel force that has led the United States-backed fight against the Islamic State, appealed to Turkey to cease its operation in Afrin, calling it an unjustifiable aggression against the Syrian people that would undermine the fight against the Islamic State.

“If attacked, we will have no choice but to defend ourselves and our people,” the command said in a statement, “but we state in front of the world that we harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey.”

Syrians in the region expressed alarm, as the aerial bombardment hit outlying villages along the Turkish border.

Civilians were fearful and were leaving Afrin and the villages along the border, a resident of Afrin said. He asked that his name be withheld from publication out of concern for his safety.

A lawmaker in Syria’s Parliament expressed concern that Turkey was looking to create strife among Syrians by using Arab members of the rebel Free Syrian Army to fight Syrian Kurds.

The Syrian government and some Kurdish militias were negotiating to raise Syrian government flags over public buildings in Afrin to try to avert the Turkish bombing, the lawmaker said. The lawmaker added there was a split among Kurds about whether to accept the Syrian government’s retaking of Afrin, in a bid to end the Turkish offensive, or whether Kurds should maintain control and resist the offensive.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected during the early days of the crisis, sent out a forlorn appeal to all parties to abide by an agreement forged in March between American-backed Kurdish rebels and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters on the control of villages around Afrin.

“Given previous discussions about this settlement to reduce further bloodshed and lives lost on both sides,” he wrote in an email, “it is important to consider a return to this agreement to reduce tensions.”

Nytimes

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