News & Views

One Man’s Journey Through War to Save His Son

Mustafa* knows two kinds of fear: the suffocating fear of dying or losing a loved one in a bomb blast, and the slow creeping fear of watching his youngest child slowly die before his eyes and being unable to do anything about it.

Mustafa lived a simple life. Every day he crossed a bridge to the local market where he sold ceramics. At night, he came home to his wife and three children.

But when the Syrian War began, the simple act of crossing a bridge—now the border between the rebels and Assad’s government—became dangerous. Every day as Mustafa walked across the bridge, he didn’t know if he would live or die.

This fear hit close to home when a bomb in his area brought down a three-story building beside his home. The explosion caused his infant son to go into shock. As the bombing became a normal, everyday occurrence, his family rarely left home and his daughters’ studies abruptly ended.

Eventually, the bridge across the warzone was closed. To survive, Mustafa moved his family to the government area of the city. While it was much harder to make ends meet, Mustafa and his family made due. War raged around them, and Mustafa got used to living in fear.


It was about this time that Mustafa’s then two-year-old son, Ahmed*, started getting sick. The doctors seemed at a loss—first they just gave Ahmed some medicine. Then they started blood transfusions every month, then every 20 days, then every week.  Even with their efforts, Ahmed was getting worse.

Now, Mustafa knew that he had to leave.  He had to find a way to protect his family and treat his son.

He put his family on a bus to the border town of Baab Salaam. Then, they walked—carrying sick, dehydrated Ahmed—two hours until they reached the border between Syria and Turkey. At this time in 2013, the border was still open, so they simply showed their Syrian passports and crossed into Turkey.

The trip was hard on Ahmed, and his illness got worse and worse. Mustafa took him to the hospital, but without Turkish papers, they would not treat Ahmed.

Mustafa came to the local refugee agency in a panic. His son needed medical attention immediately. While the agency was happy to get his son an appointment in three days, Mustafa knew that his son did not have three days. He asked for the name of the hospital and left.

At the ER, it was obvious that Ahmed did not simply need a blood transfusion. Something was seriously wrong. After a couple of days, the doctors diagnosed Ahmed with leukemia and checked him into the hospital where he stayed for the next year.


Life in Turkey was difficult. As a refugee, Mustafa and his family were not truly citizens although they were allowed to stay in the country; they were in limbo.

And at the time, Ahmed’s life was truly in limbo. He needed a bone marrow transplant, but as Mustafa put it, “If I sold body parts, I still wouldn’t have been able to pay for a bone marrow transplant.”

Mustafa’s life in Turkey became a tough routine. He went to work in construction at 7am, saying good morning to his two girls who were staying with relatives. He worked hard until 5 or 6pm, when he went to the hospital, bringing his wife and son food and anything they might need. After a couple of hours, he went home and said goodnight to his daughters before starting the entire ordeal over again.

In the midst of this, he managed to start the process to get refugee status. After seven and a half months, he received good news—in two weeks, he and his family were moving to Philadelphia.


The flight between Istanbul and JFK was physically taxing on Ahmed, and when the family arrived in New York, Ahmed’s condition was critical. He spent five or six hours in a New York hospital where his condition was stabilized. At 3am early on a Friday morning, Mustafa, Ahmed, and their family arrived in Philadelphia, where HIAS Pennsylvania housing coordinator, Gin Sum met them attheir new apartment.

Over the next week, HIAS Pennsylvania staff connected Mustafa’s family to the services they needed. Mustafa’s daughters were enrolled in school for the first time in years. HIAS Pennsylvania staff took Ahmed to CHOP where Ahmed finally got the medical care he needed.

Mustafa appreciates all the opportunities the United States has given his family. Ahmed is now getting the best medical care he could get. At the hospital, they care about his well being: volunteers come to cheer him up, and Ahmed has toys to play with. With HIAS Pennsylvania’s support, Mustafa feels like he has been “set in the right direction towards potential opportunities.”

Now, Mustafa does not have to fear being bombed. Through the help of HIAS Pennsylvania, his family lives together in a safe house. In the US, for the first time, his daughters have the chance of receiving a stable education. While Mustafa does not know what will happen to his son, he knows that he is doing everything he can for his son’s health and no longer fears that he isn’t.  Right now, Mustafa’s extended family, left in Syria, is not so lucky. From one day to the next, they have to face the struggle of not knowing if they will die, lose a family member, or lose a limb. But, HIAS Pennsylvania is ready to help give any family who escapes the struggle of war or persecution the chance to start over in Philadelphia.

*Names have been changed.