Thursday, May 26, 2016

Memorial Graduate ‘Blessed’ After Journey From Syria

Abdul Kalo has had enough risk. Just getting to Memorial High School a couple of years ago involved more risk than most assume in a lifetime.

Kalo will graduate Saturday and go on to study biomedical engineering at UT-San Antonio. Even his choice of major indicates a certain weariness with risk.

He had planned to major in petroleum engineering, he said, but watching the ups and downs – and particularly the latest downs – of the oil industry convinced him to try another discipline.

“My family and I have already taken risks,” he said. “I want more stability.”

Kalo immigrated to the United States from Syria by way of Qatar, escaping civil war and violence in his hometown of Homs.

Life once was good in Homs. Kalo attended an American private school where he enjoyed his studies and he was active in sports. His family operated a water treatment business and had for generations. Abdul Kalo shares a name with his father and grandfather and looked forward to becoming a mechanical engineer and one day taking over the family business.

All that changed during the spring of 2011, when protests in Damascus and elsewhere were met with violent crackdowns by Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad’s troops.

Kalso and his family watched as demonstrations took place in other small cities but not in Homs. But it wasn’t long before the protests reached Homs, at first peaceful but eventually turning violent as the army started cracking down.

Through the violence, Kalo’s family’s life was pretty much the same although devastation lay all around them. He kept going to school, some 30 miles away, which was unsafe, he said, but he went anyway. It wasn’t long before he switched to a school closer to his home.

Even that wasn’t safe enough. Within a couple of months a school bus carrying students from Kalo’s school was shot up, killing a classmate and injuring seven, including a friend of his brother.

Kalo’s mother said “no more.”

The family moved to Damascus, the Syrian capital about a couple of hours south of Homs and close to the border with Lebanon, to live with his grandparents. He went to school there, a good school, he said, and life was again somewhat ordinary.

Soon, though, the violence reached Damascus. Kalo’s father went ahead to Qatar where he started a new water treatment company. The family business in Homs was gone – literally and physically, Kalo said. “The building, everything was gone,” he said. “We couldn’t get parts and supplies.”

The family was living in the back part of their house, away from the street and away from the gunfire, when Kalo and his family had one of their more harrowing experiences. They were traveling on a highway and got caught in crossfire between rebels and army troops, then went the wrong way trying to escape. Soldiers stopped their vehicle and tried to make the family go back the direction they’d come.

When his family refused, the soldiers made a call and reported that the area from where they’d just come – the crossfire area – was safe. The family disagreed but turned around then exited the highway at the first opportunity. It was at a hotel where Kalo’s mother made yet another decree.

We need out, she said.

The family moved to Qatar, joining Kalo’s father. Kalo went back to school, a private school in Qatar that he says was not as good as his former school.

“Qatar was really different for us,” he said. “There are many races – it’s a very mixed place.”

And expensive. Kalo stayed in Qatar for a year while his family worked on getting U.S. visas.

“We’d lost our home, our cars, our company,” he said. “We started from zero in Qatar. But it’s too expensive there … it’s like sucking on blood.”

After a month in Egypt they came to Texas. Kalo’s mother had friends here, in Houston, and the family chose a home because of Memorial High School. His mother wanted Abdul to go to a public school because the family had already “spent so much” on private school, he said.

And while making up schoolwork has been difficult, and finding the college acceptance/financing process especially challenging for a non-U.S. resident, Kalo is happy with life at Memorial High School.

He plays soccer competitively for Memorial and for club soccer team the Albion Hurricanes, and swims and plays tennis for fun. Besides his mother, Abdul Kalo has a sister in college, a younger brother at Memorial High School and a younger sister at Memorial Middle School.

Academically, he’s had to make up a lot of ground for all the time he missed as the family fled Syria.

He took exams to make up some credits but had to take courses such as U.S. History for the first time. And his English, he said, has gotten “way better” in the two years he’s been at Memorial. “It wasn’t good when I got here,” he said.

He likes Houston and Memorial High School and says that people here are similar to Syrians, that culture and life here is much like it is in Syria, at least pre-revolution Syria.

One difference? The college application process. In Syria, he said, students take a test and the score largely determines where you go to college.

Here, he said, students deal with standardized tests, paperwork, looking for scholarships.

“It’s really stressful to get into college, I’ll just tell you,” he said. But looking back on his journey to the United States and Houston, and even now worrying about resident status and college, Abdul Kalo puts it all in perspective.

“I’m blessed to be here,” he said.

Rusty Graham


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