Documenting distance: A profile on student Kiro Khalil

Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

Documenting Distance

Part I of II: Brief reflections on finding and maintaining home almost 7,500 miles away


I ask Kiro Khalil what comes to mind when he hears the word “home.” He tells me “Egypt” in an instant — but, after a brief pause, adds an addendum.

“I picked to have two homes,” he says. With this statement, he is paying homage to the past five years he’s been in the U.S. — five years he never intended to spend here.

Though he did intend to come to the U.S. at some point, “picked” might not be exactly the right word for how Khalil ended up finding home in this country. Khalil was, by all intents and purposes, forced to the states by circumstances beyond his control. The now-24-year-old left his apartment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square five years ago, in 2011, when the activity of Egyptian protesters threatened his life as a civil engineering student in the city’s premier university. He tells me that his father ordered him to leave. His parents suspected that the people who lined the streets directly outside Khalil’s apartment — citizens demanding the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — would either come up the stairs to forcibly take his residence or burn the place to the ground. He would be caught up in a battle that was not his — it was no longer safe for him to remain.

Khalil, a fifth-year Integrative Biology undergraduate student, is immediately engaging, constantly smiling and has the ability to tell me with perfect clarity about the darkest night he spent in his home country. Jan. 25, a day he says people in Egypt call “Frustration Friday,” was the worst night of his life. He had no idea what the morning would bring.

We are perhaps not in the most fitting venue for this story to be told, eating a placid lunch in the sunny main dining area of TAKO Sushi on Telegraph Avenue. It was Khalil’s idea to meet here — he’s a regular customer of the popular Japanese restaurant just a few blocks from campus. As we wait for his food to arrive, Khalil recounts how he watched from his balcony as the Cairo police forces gave up their positions, leaving the street for the protestors. As he watched the police flee, abandoning their guns on the street to no longer be identifiable as marshals of the law, he feared for his life and knew he’d have to leave.

“I picked to have two homes,” he says. With this statement, he is paying homage to the past five years he’s been in the U.S. — five years he never intended to spend here.

As luck would have it, Khalil had already acquired a green card through a lottery system sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Diversity Visa Program. He initially believed he had time to mull over the decision of whether or not to come, but his father pushed him to escape the revolution’s violence. Underprepared was an understatement: “Believe me, I couldn’t say, ‘How are you?’ in English,” he tells me.

Khalil’s story is deeply engaging. I sit enthralled as he narrates his first two months in the U.S. — months spent in an unfurnished basement in Hayward, California, set up for him by a local Coptic Christian priest, a colleague of his well-connected father. He says that during this time he “couldn’t do anything” — and he isn’t joking. Without a mode of transportation or a modicum of English language ability, Khalil was stranded. He began working at a cigarette store, learning English colloquialisms as best he could. After six months, his situation changed. He says that “by the grace of God,” he was connected with a woman who owned an antique store and wanted to give him a chance, promising she could help him with his English.

After this, Khalil’s life accelerated rapidly. He took classes at Chabot Community College and dreamed of transferring to a four-year university, fulfilling his father’s goal for him to attend UC Berkeley. He worked hard and learned a lot. At this point, he tells me, he decided that he would not go back to Egypt until he had achieved something, until he could become valuable to the country that provided him with a safe haven. He decided to stay in America after graduation to pursue his dream of going to dental school.

When Khalil got into UC Berkeley in the spring of 2013, it was the proudest moment of his life. It also signified his increasing separation from his family. He now had the ability to stay for real, to pursue his dreams in a tangible way.

When I ask him whether or not he thinks his family misses him, Khalil pulls out his iPhone and flips to a photo from just a few weeks ago. The photo is a candid one of his family leaving after a recent visit. His mother, clearly crying, waves as she enters SFO’s departures terminal; as they follow, his father holds the shoulder of Khalil’s little brother, whose face is turned away. “He cannot look at me, you see?” Even now, five years later, Khalil calls his family every day, sometimes twice a day.

 “I’m all about connecting. The variation of people here is amazing. If you can learn (something) from one person every day, you will have a lot of stuff when you graduate.”

“I miss them so much that I get myself busy with school so I don’t have to think about it,” he says. Besides his family, Khalil misses simple, elemental things: his church, praying with his father, the students he taught when he was a Sunday school teacher. Khalil is also a 25-year-old man — he misses Cairo’s nightlife, the constant movement and activity of the city. He tells me: “In Egypt, people don’t sleep, in Cairo you have something to do 24/7. It’s not healthy, it’s not clean enough, but I miss it.”

This is no surprise — Khalil is exceptionally friendly. As we talk at TAKO Sushi, he pulls from his backpack a container of mandarin oranges, brandishing them, for a moment, inexplicably. I am confused for a moment, but he explains that the night before, he had shared an orange with a stressed-looking girl in the library. This is simply who Khalil is: “I’m all about connecting. The variation of people here is amazing. If you can learn (something) from one person every day, you will have a lot of stuff when you graduate,” he said.

There is pressure for Khalil to make connections now — he has decided that although he still occasionally yearns for his Egyptian home, he will pursue a permanent life in the United States. His two best friends who visited him last summer told him he cannot return to Egypt. “They told me, ‘There is no way you’re going to be able to go back to Egypt again.’ I asked, ‘Why? Am I bad, am I different?’ They shook their heads, said, ‘You just think differently.’ ”

“If I had stayed in Egypt, I may be married, I might have a kid. I might be working in an engineering firm or operation. I would be in the church. I would be with my friends. I would be with my family,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be Kiro as I want him to be. I wouldn’t be the person which I have progressed to.”

Kate Wolffe is a writer for the Weekender. Contact her at [email protected]