Identical twins from Syria share their story

This past March marked ten years of Syria’s civil war, which has displaced 13.2 million Syrian citizens, creating an international refugee crisis. Of those displaced, 8,559 Syrians immigrated to America, 118 of which came to Nebraska. Alsafa and Almarwa Alkhalil are identical twin sisters who immigrated from Syria in 2017. They are sophomores at Central High School and account for two of the 118.

Their story began in their hometown al-Raqqa, Syria, where Alsafa and Almarwa’s father, Abdulallah Alkhalil worked as a civil rights lawyer advocating on behalf of political prisoners. Two generations of oppressive, authoritative Assad family rule left many citizens’ lives in ruins. Since 1971, citizens’ freedom of speech, religion and sexuality have been restricted by the government.
“It [Syria] was a corrupted government that refused citizens basic human rights,” Explained sophomore Alsafa Alkhalil.

In early 2011 after years of oppression, pro-Democracy protests erupted in Daraa, Syria. The police responded harshly by beating and arresting the adolescent protesters.  Over a hundred teenagers were killed. Days later, protests for democracy had spread to other Syrian cities. The pro-Democracy protests continued, eventually sparking the beginning of Syria’s civil rights war. Since then, Syrian Security Forces have killed and arbitrarily arrested thousands of protesters including Alsafa and Almarwa’s father and cousin.

Although threatened with severe punishment, Abdulallah Alkhalil, Alsafa and Almarwa’s father continued to fight for political reforms through protesting and his work as a lawyer.
“He was arrested three times for two months. Twice because of his job as a lawyer, and once because of joining a protest against the government,” stated sophomore Alsafa Alkhalil.

In 2012, the family was alerted their father was to be arrested again the following day.  Fearful that he would not return after another arrest, the family fled to Turkey.
“We had to flee the country because it was no longer safe for our family. If the government came and our father wasn’t there, then they [the government] would have held us [the family] hostage, to get him to come back,” said sophomore Almarwa Alkhalil.  After a difficult journey to Turkey, they began their new life in an unfamiliar country. They would stay in Turkey as refugees for the next five years.

Although Alsafa and Almarwa’s family no longer lived in Syria, the distance did not stop their father from helping citizens. He helped organize transports of food and medicine to Syria. By 2013, the government troops had been forced to retreat from Raqqa. Soon after, their father visited the city to help Syrian citizens. Their father returned briefly to his family in Turkey, then went back to Syria. However, within days of their father’s second trip to Raqqa, ISIS invaded taking over the newly freed city. On April 19, their father and cousin were abducted by ISIS. The twin’s cousin was found months later in the dessert having been tortured and beaten by ISIS. He survived, however there was no word about their father. Desperate for answers, their mother snuck back into Syria. When she returned to their home in Raqqa, she found it gutted. Appliances, bricks, toilets and anything of value were stolen from the home. Unable to find news of her husband, she returned to Turkey. Back in Turkey, she worked with Amnesty International, to begin the long process of relocating the family. After three long years, in 2017 they were notified that they were moving to the U.S. The Alkhalil family would be one of the last Muslim families to enter the U.S. before Trump Administration closed America’s borders to Muslims.
“We were one of the last groups let into America. When we got to the airport, there were journalists, news reporters and people taking our photos,” described sophomore, Alsafa Alkhalil.

Now, nine years later, the family is still waiting for news of their father and anticipating his safe return. After living in America for almost five years, the sisters consider Omaha home. They are active members at Central and are involved in sports, advanced-academic programs and multiple after-school clubs. They have made close friends and are very thankful to Amnesty International for helping them move to Omaha.
“I wish all Syrian citizens can get the same opportunity as us, but unfortunately the world is unfair. Many of my people are victims of war, corrupt leadership and terrorism. Always be thankful for what you have because in other places and to other people, it’s the impossible, amazing reality they can never have,” reflects sophomore, Almarwa Alkhalil.