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In Limbo, In Love, In America: The Story Of A Syrian Asylum-Seeker

Editor's note on Oct. 28: Because of safety concerns, Khaled's last name has been removed from this page.

Khaled is one of the few Syrians to have made it to the U.S. since the start of the Syrian civil war. Even here, though, the 31-year-old remains in limbo, unsure of how long he'll be allowed to stay.

For now, Khaled lives in Southern California. When he spoke with NPR's Arun Rath, Khaled spoke of his life in Syria before the war.

"Nothing special," Khaled says. "I'm just like any Syrian guy from Damascus. I work with my father; we have a family business."

He helped run his family's Internet cafe, at the same time attending school to study computers.

Then, in 2011, the Arab Spring came to Damascus. He says he supported the protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad — but he was reluctant to do so publicly.

"I want freedom to my country. I want to be open, like Europe, like United States, like any country." But, he says, there was "a lot of intelligence, police — where the government control everything. So I have to be extra careful. I was, let's say, support them from inside, but not doing anything. Because I'm scared."

As the uprising grew, another fear grew with it: Khaled says he was also scared of getting drafted into Assad's army and being forced to fight the rebels.

"I don't accept to join any military," he says. "I don't accept to kill someone. That I believe, so I find the best thing to do is to leave the country."

And when he did so, he had to leave his family behind. "I broke them heart," he tells Rath. "They don't want me to leave but in the same time, at least they know that I will be safe — because they don't want to see me dead."

He couldn't get a visa to enter Europe or the U.S. Still, Mexico remained an option — and he left his home for the country in September 2012. Khaled had a friend there, and he intended to stay for just a short spell. But as he watched from Mexico, Syria degenerated into a full-scale civil war, and Khaled decided he couldn't go home.

Instead, he went north in March 2014 — straight to a checkpoint on the American border, between Tijuana and San Diego. He went up to the first officer he could find, handed over his passport and told the officer he needed asylum.

"He like confused — I remember his face," Khaled says. "I remember he ask another [officer], like, 'Hey, we have guys from Syria,' and maybe he tell him like, 'Let him in.' "

Khaled spent 10 months in an immigration detention center in Louisiana. While there, he was brought before a judge three times to plead his case for asylum.

It was also there that Khaled got a call from his brother: Back in Syria, their mother had been killed in a bombing.

"He tried to hide this from me. He didn't want to make it worse in detention," Khaled says. "But I like feel it in my heart. I tell him, 'Tell me, I know somethings happened,' and he tell me, 'Just be patient: Your mom passed away.' "

He still has his mother's phone number on his cellphone. He says that to this day, he still has trouble accepting her death.

"It's hard," he says. "What happened to Syria is not fair."

Eventually, immigration authorities denied Khaled's case for asylum. In December 2014, Khaled left the detention center under supervised release. Authorities have ordered his deportation, but, Khaled says, he has not been informed of when — or to which country — he might be deported.

In the meantime, he's managed to get a work permit and a couple of part-time jobs in California — and he's met the love of his life. She's Vietnamese-American, and, like Khaled, she had to leave her home country due to war.

In April, they got married.

"She's like my friend, my boss, you say — she's like my lover, my wife. And everything here, she's like, she's next to me," he says. "When I look at myself in the mirror, I see her. She understands me right away, she understands my situation."

As he awaits a decision on his deportation, Khaled remains unsure of what will happen next.

"I hope to continue my life like anyone else. But what can you do?"

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Corrected: September 28, 2015 at 10:00 PM MDT
The audio of this story, as did a previous version of the Web story, incorrectly states that Khaled has another hearing regarding his asylum claim, in January 2016. According to Khaled, immigration authorities denied his asylum claim, placed him on supervised release and ordered his deportation. He says he has not been informed of when — or to which country — he might be deported. Lori K. Haley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says in a statement provided to NPR that Khaled "was ordered removed by an immigration judge with the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in August 2014. In December 2014, he was released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody on an order of supervision, which requires him to report regularly to ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations officers in Orange County while his removal order is in effect." Khaled currently has no pending appeals, Haley says.
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