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WRESL members were recently invited to take part in a workshop focused on reconciling differing opinions. The discussion took place on Saturday, October 5, 2019 and featured Heval Kelli and Chris Buckley. Both men were born in 1983 and now live in Clarkston, Georgia. Heval fled Syria with his family as a child. When he got to the US, he worked as a dishwasher and is now a cardiologist. Chris is a US military veteran, and former KKK member. The two men have become friends and now speak with communities about overcoming hate. There is a documentary film being made about the two men: To the right, Heval and Chris speak with staff, students and faculty during their visit to UNC.
Two men sit at a cafe table and talk with those around them.
The workshop was part of the  “Countering Hate” initiative in the College of Arts and Sciences. Two students from WRESL attended this event.

First-year student, Tracy Ridley, who has recently joined WRESL, attended this event and provided the following response:

Heval and Chris coming to Carolina was a delight. Both of their stories alone were inspirational and together were indescribably enriching. The most valuable lesson I took from their visit was to not go into a conversation with the goal of changing someone’s mind but simply listen and attempt to understand the other’s perspective. With refugees and integration being one of my main interests, their unique story has shown me how easily I can incite change, whether it be locally or internationally. Their story touched me and will forever be in my mind when I encounter new, divergent personalities and pursue my future career.


Sarah Hutchison, TAM Associate Director and WRESL Facilitator, wrote this reflection:

Chris and Heval told their life stories in alternating segments which they called “acts.” Heval described the rather negative experience he had as a Syrian refugee relocated to a small mountain town in Germany. Though no Germans reached out to welcome him while there, he did encounter elderly American church members who knocked on his family’s door as soon as they arrived in Georgia. These Americans offered Heval food and clothing. Heval made a point to explain that he owes his own professional success to the help he received from his American community. He now wants to “give back” and serve his community as a doctor of preventative medicine. He also sees himself as someone who engages in outreach and makes the first gesture to people like Chris who are angry with and fearful of Muslim immigrants.


Heval noted that the first time he met Chris in person, he was struck by his poor living conditions. Heval explained that Chris’ home and neighborhood were worse than the refugee housing he had experienced. He says that he reminds people now that the US has a population of “rural refugees” – native-born Americans who are living in destitution.


I was particularly interested in these parts of the discussion – I would like to know more about how Heval’s refugee experience differed in Germany and the US. I’d also like to know how Chris feels as a US citizen and war veteran when he hears himself referred to as a “rural refugee.”

Could this term expand our understanding of the word refugee?

One often perceives an anti-immigration refrain – why should our country accept refugees and help them when there are so many Americans who need help. Heval’s narrative provides an interesting reversal as he is a refugee who received assistance and who now is in a position to provide aid to others. His focus lands on US nationals in distress.


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