Canandaigua, N.Y. (WROC-TV) — The crowd at Canandaigua Academy’s graduation shot up and gave the student speaker a standing ovation that was more cry than applause.
That student, Mohammad Fouad Damlakhi, had simply told his story.
It’s a story that begins with two brothers in Aleppo, Syria when a bomb hit their home as they slept.
Adam Chodak: What was life before all of that?
Fouad Damlakhi: It was so normal. My dad would go to work. He used to have an upholstery shop over there. He would work and make my family money. My mom had to stay home, look out for us. Women can’t really work in Syria so she used to sit home and take care of the children. My dad was working to get money for the house. After the war started everything changed. A couple months later our house got bombed. We were sleeping at 2 o’clock. We didn’t really expect for our house to get bombed so we were sleeping then all of the sudden we heard really loud noise and then I woke up and I saw myself in the hospital and I realized that I had lost my fingers in the war, in the bombing of the house. I looked for my family and I only saw my brother, Hamza, and my dad and I looked for the other half of my family and I couldn’t find them.
Othman was missing and Abdul and Neslihan and my mom, Dalal, she was missing. We looked for them in each and every hospital and we couldn’t find them. So we kept going to the police and asking them, Do you know them? Have you guys these people? Our house was like 4 floors and when the bomb hit the house we went down to second or first floor so we were asking people who were close to the house and they said everyone who got out went to the hospital, we looked in these hospitals and we couldn’t find them and that’s when we were out of luck. We didn’t have a house to stay in so we just made a house out of tarps. We lived in there and people who help people without a house brought us food and that’s how we lived for a while. My hand kept getting infected because of the shrapnel. There was shrapnel in my finger and my upper arm right here so my dad took me to the hospital again and told them to do something about it.
It kept getting infected, I couldn’t move it. They told him he had to take it to the specialist doctor. That’s when he started looking into going somewhere else further in the city for a safer spot, that’s where specialist doctors are, mostly. He looked up one, there was one up in Tartus then we didn’t have enough money so he sold his upholstery shop so he could travel to Tartus. It’s like 5 hours away from where we lived so we traveled there and we saw a specialist doctor and that’s when we started to live up in Tartus, it was safer. And then we lived there for a while, kept seeing a specialist doctor. After that we heard some people saying if you want to go to Turkey people will help you a lot. A lot of people are nice over there and they take care of refugees, that’s when my dad signed up to go to Turkey. The way we came to Turkey, it was so much safer than how they came to Turkey. We went to Turkey in big, big boat like a yacht, that’s how we traveled to Turkey. So we came to Turkey and we lived in a tarps again. It was already made for refugees, we lived in it for a while. My hand healed after living in Turkey.
My dad took and Hamza and we went to a big factory where there’s a mechanic, lots of different jobs. I started working as a mechanic helping people pick up tools and clean up after them. After a while of working there, I learned some Turkish and my Turkish had gotten better, maybe because I was young, so I picked it up quickly. Then all the sudden I see one kid walk in the shop he only spoke Arabic. My boss called me over to translate so I went in there to translate and I see my brother Othman. I started translating and he told me to ask for his name and he said his name was Othman, I want a job, we just moved here to Turkey. I told my boss, I was so curious, his name was Othman, but he didn’t even look like my brother anymore because he didn’t have hair anymore and maybe he realized my fingers were missing, I don’t know. I started asking him more specific questions like, how did you come to Turkey?
Do you have your family with you? But he wouldn’t answer any of them. He was like, why are you asking all of these questions? But I kept bugging him and I asked him for his mom’s name. He told me her name is Dalal and that’s when I was like this stranger is actually my brother. I couldn’t believe it. It was so exciting. I was like, I’m your brother, my name is Fouad. He said, no, you’re lying. He said I don’t look like Fouad anymore. I started telling him the family names, that’s when he started believing me. And then we hugged each other. It’s actually my favorite thing ever, it was so shocking to me. Such a miracle.
AC: What was it like for you in Syria, after the bombing, trying to get to a better doctor and Turkey, what was that experience like?
FD: It was so rough. The people who would bring us food to our tarp home, they would only bring it once a day and we had three of us and we’d have to save it for afternoon and there’s no refrigerator so I would go out and pick up food from the floor and eat it. It was terrible. I would literally pick up gum and chew it from the floor because there was no way I could afford to buy gum or food or anything, we didn’t have money to buy anything. My dad went out of work because of the war, he couldn’t work in his upholstery shop becaue there was a lot of bombing over there. We couldn’t really do anything. All we had to do was just stay in the tarp home and get food from the people who helped all the people who didn’t have houses.
AC: How did you make it from Turkey to the United States?
FD: After we got reunited, Othman took me to my other family members. He took me to his family and I took them all to my dad. When we got there my dad he knew my mom right away, he was so shocked, everyone was tearing up, it was so exciting. After they united my mom she already had an idea about a place where people signed up to go to America so she took my family and took her mom and her dad… It was a United Nations place to help refugees go to a better place so that’s where we signed up and after we signed up we had to go to a lot of meetings, like 20-25 meetings just to make sure we’re not going to America to harm other people.
After all these meetings we got a call from someone that we can come to America, we need to go to this hotel in 2 weeks and the day after we’ll take a bus there. We had to leave everything behind to go to that hotel. We had saved some money up by working together and we had to leave everything behind to go to America. We had heard that if we go to America I can get my fingers and my brother can get hair back because they have all this medicine here, they say that America is the best because it is the best, I really love it. So that’s when we went to the airport and went to America and we lived in Rochester as soon as we got there. There were people at the airport who took us to a house in Rochester. They took us to the house and there was a lot of food in the house. It was a really beautiful house, I had never been in a house like that. It was beautiful. They gave us a food stamp card. They said we can use this food and the money on this card until we get settled so we lived in this house for a couple of months and the same family helped us go to school up in Rochester.
We went to school up in Rochester, but it wasn’t that good for us. We had trouble learning English because all the other people that went to this school for refugees didn’t speak English. During lunch and during classes people wouldn’t talk in English, they would talk in their own language so it was so hard for us to learn it. That’s when we had this woman in the church we met. We used to go to church to get food from the church sometimes for free so we go there to get food and we met this woman who helped my family to move to Canandaigua and we move here and the school was so much better. All the students spoke English and we learned it so quick. Literally a year after I could really talk better English and this woman helped us find a job in Canandaigua at Pudgies. And people here are really nice. Up in Rochester the school, one time this kid made fun of my fingers because I only have three fingers, here the kids are so much nicer.
One time I got lost in school, he literally walked me to class and didn’t even know him. I told him I want to go to 133 and he took me to the room and I didn’t even know the kid, that’s how much kids are nice here.
AC: What do you hope to do from here?
FD: I hope now that I graduated high school and I’m going to college that I go through medical school to be a doctor because I really enjoy it now since I’m working in Geneva Hospital taking care of these people, just taking their vitals or their blood pressure, it really makes me happy because I’ve never seen myself doing this. When I go to the doctor to get checked out, he does my vital or blood pressure and now I’m going it, it makes me feel like a different person that I’m really taking care of all these people, makes me happy.
AC: What do you think about this whole experience that you’ve had to live within the last 10 years?
FD: We suffered a lot in Syria. I’ve never said that my life is going to change and I’d have everything I wanted. I lived in Syria all this time and I just wander the streets eating food from the floor. We didn’t have a house to live in anymore. I thought we’d live in tarps forever. Everything changed, we’re now in America, we have a house to live in. I never saw myself driving a car here and now I’m driving a car, I have a license. I feel like if you work hard, look for success, if you work hard, that will make success.
Adam Chodak: Where were you when the bombing happened? Were you in the house?
Othman Damlakhi: Yes, we were all in the same house just living a normal life like every day, enjoying, seeing our neighbors every day, going out and having fun. Usually what we do all day when we don’t have school is go out and play with my friends soccer outside on the street. One day we were sleeping and then all of the sudden we heard really loud noises and when I woke up I saw myself in the hospital literally crying and in pain and I see some doctors near me trying to calm me down, saying it’s all good, you’re family is OK and they’re all in the hospital, they’re getting treated and he said, when you get better I’ll let you get up and you can go see them. I waited until the doctor came back and he got me on a wheelchair and he got me to see my family. I saw my mom and my sister and my oldest brother, Abdul. We didn’t see my brother, Hamza, and Mohammad, and my dad.
Three of them were missing. I asked the doctor and he said that’s all that we have with that last name so you can go and look in different hospitals because they might have sent them someplace else so we got up. We stayed in the hospital for a while because everyone was really injured so until we got better, we went and started looking for them. My mom went to every hospital, every police station and asked for them because here there’s usually too many deaths and some people are severely injured you can’t even tell who they are, they usually just take a picture of them, what they’re wearing and my mom went through a lot of pictures to see if she could find her husband or her kids, my brother, but she didn’t see any of them. She couldn’t tell if they were in the pictures or not. So we kept looking and looking after a year and my mom just gave up and said, every time we asked for my dad she said, oh he’s really busy, he’s working, he’s going to come back. I saw my mom, she worked every day.
Women are not supposed work, but she worked because no one else can really take care of us and get some food for us and we went with her sometimes to help her out. And my oldest brother, he went with her and we worked together until we found somehow people are traveling to Turkey because the army is taking people who are underage because they want for the army and my mom decided to move to Turkey. Plus, it’s a safer place and better. We tried to go and there are some people, there’s a random guy, we didn’t know him, but he said you guys have to pay me money and I’ll help you cross the border into Turkey. But he wanted too much money and we didn’t have that much money so we had to go back and still work until we saved up some money and we went back and we paid the guy money. He gave us a little quick lesson. He said sometimes you see soldiers shooting and all you have to do is follow me wherever you go, follow me. If you get lost, I can’t go back and help you out.
So were literally crawling, following the guy. Everyone is behind just following him across the border. We went and we did cross the border, but there was a little shooting and the family got a little scared because in Syria all of the women wear the same clothes and cover themselves my sister went with another mother, thought it was her mother and she got separated and after crossed the border we couldn’t find her. We kept bugging the guy, please can you go find my sister until he decided to go help us and go look for her and he found her with a different family. From there, we were very happy to back together. From there, we were on the border of Turkey, there were a lot of buses, they wanted more money to take you to the city. We didn’t have the money because we spent all the money for the guy to cross the border. So we had to work for people, clean their houses, stuff like that, until we had enough money to go to the city. We saved up some money and we paid the buses and they got us into the city.
We moved to the city. My brother got a job right away because he’s a mechanic. He knew how to do the job, but I didn’t know. Every day he’d go to his job and I’d go looking for a job. After a while I walked into a place looking for a job speaking my own language because I don’t even know they spoke a different language and I walk into a place talking to an old guy and I was like will you hire me. The guy just stood there like what are you talking about. I didn’t even know what he was talking about. He was yelling a name Mohammad. I was like, OK, who’s Mohammad? He came in. A guy came in and started speaking Arabic. He starts translating. He was like what do you need and stuff like that. I was like I’m looking for a job. My name is Othman. He opened his eyes and started asking me more questions. He was like what do you want? I was like I need a job for my family, can you ask your boss if I can work here? He started asking me more questions like, what’s your mom’s name? Who’s your dad? I was like, why are you asking that? It brought back bad memories because of my dad and I couldn’t find him. He kept asking me and I really needed a job so bad so I answered all of his questions.
At the end he was like, oh, my name is Fouad. I knew I had a brother who’s name is Fouad, but he looked all different. His age and because we were separated for 4 years. And he was like, I’m your brother, do you remember me? I was like, no. My brother, I haven’t seen him for 4 years and my dad and my other brother. He’s like, yeah, I’m your brother and starts telling me family names and until this moment, I was very shocked. I was like, oh my god, no way. I was like, he’s my brother? I started tearing up. At the same time, I was very happy. It was the happiest moment of my life. I asked him if my dad and other brother were alive and he said yes they are, they are working in a factory. We went there and they were very happy. I saw my dad and my other brother. I was very happy and my dad was crying the whole time until we came to my mom, they came back together. I remember, it was the longest day of seeing my family crying. They were very happy we came back together and from there my mom and dad promised they’d never leave each other and stay together for the rest of their life. From there, my grandparents because they moved with us to Turkey, they started looking for a better life because there’s too many of us and my grandparents found this United Nations program where people sign up and actually do accept them and they go to France, Germany, U.S., wherever, they get accepted to.
My grandparents signed up and they got accepted and they say, yes, you can go because they’ve got some health issues. My grandparents said we need our daughter to go with us because we’re too old so they had to process all that to see if my mother could go with them and they did accept that and my mom said the same thing, I can’t go without my kids and husband and that’s how we all came back, they accept all of us. We had a lot of meetings with that, every other week. And they do pay for us to go to the meeting which is very nice too. After a while, almost a whole year, we never had a phone call back from them, we thought it’s over, they didn’t except us. We started to try to have a better life in Turkey and start working harder then all of the sudden I see my dad screaming, happy, jumping, like, oh what’s going on. He’s like, we just got a phone call from United Nations, they accepted us to come to America and we were like, no way! We all stayed up for the rest of the night, celebrating and that’s how we came to America. We moved in the middle of the winter. We had never seen winter before.
We had never seen snow before. We moved here in the middle of January. When we got to Rochester they put us in the van and dropped us off at a house in Rochester near the lake and the snow was like six inches and I was like, oh my god, I love it. We start playing with snow, but after a while it’s still cold. We started hating it. They had given us six bikes for everyone and said it was good for your health, you can ride bike and wherever you want, we tried to ride the bike on the snow and we couldn’t go anywhere, we didn’t move and an inch and we fell. After a while, they signed us up to go to school and like my brother said, it was a great school, everyone followed the rules, but there were too many immigrants at school, everyone speaking their own languages and in the cafeteria you didn’t hear a single work in English. We didn’t really learn any English and that’s when we decided to go to a different school. We decided to move to Canandaigua. It was a lot safer and a lot quieter too.
We love everything about Canandaigua. All the people were very nice and we just had a great experience because the teachers feel like our mothers because they really take care of us way too much especially because we didn’t speak English very much, they tried their hardest to make sure we succeed and we learn English faster and we can achieve our goals and they ask where we want to be in the future and we told them we want to be doctors so they tried their hardest so that we can learn English faster. When first moved here we didn’t even know how to count from one to ten.
AC: What do you think of winter now?
OD: It never ends. The weather always changes in New York.
AC: What do you think about everything that’s happened?
OD: Every time I think about it, god wanted my family to come back together and god gave us the opportunity to come somewhere where it’s safer here in America and we try very hard to take advantage of this opportunity to be here in America because not a lot of people, like most of my family in Syria separated and they went somewhere else too, it’s their dream to come somewhere like here in America and I just feel like my father always says, please, take the advantage and the opportunity that was god gave you and try to achieve your goals, which I feel he’s right because not many people have this opportunity. We’re very lucky.
AC: It seems like your both taking advantage…
OD: We’re trying our hardest because in Turkey we work really, really hard from morning to night and they paid us differently because we didn’t speak the language. Here in America they pay us just like everyone else and give us the power to work more and try to do more stuff for my family and to succeed.