EXPLOSIONS LIT the sky over Damascus while Khaldoun partied with his friends late into a weekend night in August 2014.
Despite the nightly firefights, the shelling that tore children and other innocents to shreds one morning while Khaldoun was walking to class, despite the night that bullets ripped through his kitchen window, the soft-spoken 20-year-old psychology student had made it through three years of Syria's civil war. He had no intention of leaving now.
The next morning, the phone rang. It was his aunt.
"Call your mother. And leave the house. Something bad is going to happen."
Khaldoun threw a few possessions into a gym bag. His mother told him to meet her shortly for the dangerous three-hour cab ride to Beirut, Lebanon. A family friend had spotted Khaldoun's name on a list of people to be detained by security forces loyal to Syrian despot Bashar Assad, if and when he was stopped at a checkpoint.
But Khaldoun and his mom would need to cross several checkpoints to get out of the war-ravaged nation. Each time, his heart raced. "They're going to know," he told himself.
In many ways, Khaldoun's story is all too common: As many as 7 million people have been forced to flee Syria, as political unrest in the 2011 Arab Spring devolved into all-out civil war that metastasized with the rise of violent forces such as the radical Islamist movement ISIS.
But a part of Khaldoun's saga is also unique. The son of a university professor and a gynecologist, with a brother who's a cardiology fellow at Temple University and with a U.S. visa, Khaldoun, now 21, is one of just a trickle of Syrian migrants so far to reach the United States and apply for political asylum.
Now, in the wake of Friday's barbaric terrorist attack by ISIS on Paris that killed 129 people, including an American, and injured hundreds more, even that weak stream of freedom-seeking Syrians may flow to a virtual halt.
As knee-jerk political expediency triumphs over compassion, nearly two dozen governors from Texas to New Hampshire vowed yesterday that their states would seek to actively block any Syrian refugees from arriving - citing widespread panic that ISIS terrorists might be embedded among refugees.
Indeed, one of only a handful of governors to buck the political stampede was Pennsylvania's Gov. Wolf, who vowed to continue to work to accept refugees in the Keystone State. In a taste of the brewing political wars, GOP state Rep. Lou Barletta, who was elected on a platform of fighting undocumented immigrants, claimed there was no good way to vet refugees for terror ties, and pleaded with Wolf to change his mind.
"I appeal to your concern for the safety of your fellow Pennsylvanians and ask that you reverse your policy of accepting the so-called 'Syrian refugees,' " Barletta wrote. French officials say as many as six of the eight attackers at least visited Syria, although most are believed to be French or Belgian nationals, not Syrians.
Meanwhile, most experts on migration are aghast at the political maneuvering. The reality, as the Economist reported yesterday, is that of the 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States since the 2001 attacks, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.
In the case of Syria, experts note, the millions of migrants created by the conflict are largely the victims of violence, not the creators of the mayhem. From the torture and violent oppression of the Assad regime to the senseless bloodshed of ISIS, the insanity of everyday life in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation is what's fueling one of the largest flights of refugees since World War II.
'It's a sad reaction'
Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, a 133-year-old group that helps resettle refugees, is dismayed at the politics of the Paris aftermath.
"It's a sad reaction to what is a horrible, horrible act that we all condemn," Bernstein-Baker said yesterday. "Aren't we a people that provides sanctuary to victims of terror?"
The reality is that - even as the war in Syria drags on and American bombs now fall on ISIS positions there and in neighboring Iraq - the United States has not taken in many Syrian migrants, especially when compared with the millions streaming across Europe or in Middle Eastern refugee camps.
Experts say it's important to understand the different types of politically motivated migration. Those like Khaldoun who make it to the United States on their own power can then apply for political asylum, to remain a U.S. resident and work or study here. Since 2014, barely more than 2,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in the United States.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees - typically found in large camps, many in its neighboring states such as Jordan - face a much more cumbersome and difficult process to make it all the way to the U.S. Amid the growing crisis in Europe, the Obama administration promised to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees here during the fiscal year that began last month, but most experts doubt that the number will get anywhere near that - in part because of the lengthy background checks to assure no terrorism link.
Jonah Eaton, a staff attorney with the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia, said about 20 Syrians are in the local pipeline for asylum; he's handling many of those cases.
Eaton said that Khaldoun, who is one of his clients, applied for asylum not long after arriving in Philadelphia about 15 months ago and still awaits a final decision that under guidelines is supposed to take just six months.
Even with that ruling still pending, the young Syrian national knows that he's lucky to no longer be in Damascus, or in its suburbs where he grew up. The Daily News spoke with Khaldoun several weeks ago, and agreed to withhold his last name and a few other details to protect family members still in Syria.
Disdain for Assad
At the start of 2011, Khaldoun - whose family is Christian, although not particularly religious - was living a typical teen life, enjoying Western music and TV shows and preparing for the final high school exam that would determine what he would study in college.
One day, he and his friends saw a TV report about the uprisings in Tunisia - the dawn of the Arab Spring protests that would soon sweep the region.
" 'What if it happens here?' " Khaldoun recalls asking his pals. " 'Will you go out and protest?' They looked at me like I was crazy."
Soon, the protests came to him, amid escalating violence between protesters and Assad's regime. When government security forces were blamed for torturing and killing young protesters who'd written anti-Assad graffiti in a nearby town, Khaldoun and some relatives - who resented advantages given to members of Assad's Baath Party - joined a protest.
Khaldoun said that inspired a virulent reaction from neighbors who backed the regime. "They said that these were the uneducated poor, and that, 'You're not going out with these people, are you?' " The family members never took part in another protest, he said, but still made no secret of their disdain for Assad.
Khaldoun's older brother, warned for criticizing the Assad regime on Facebook, soon fled. Khaldoun could have done the same earlier - he even visited his oldest brother briefly in Philadelphia in 2012 - but he decided to return to Syria for college. He did so despite the fact that - in addition to the escalating warfare - he'd come out as gay in his last year of high school, in a nation that is largely intolerant of homosexuality.
But the civil war was the most immediate threat. One night that year, he was at home when rebel forces attacked a police station across the street from his home. A fierce gunfight broke out; Khaldoun and a friend mostly hid in the bathroom, but at one point his friend tried to look out the kitchen window and it was shattered by a bullet, cutting the friend's arm with broken glass.
By now, Khaldoun was studying psychology in a Damascus university, but with both of his brothers out of the country and posting anti-government messages on Facebook, he was lured into a Kafkaesque web of suspicion.
In November 2013, three camouflage-wearing men believed to be with the pro-government Shabiha militia broke into his family's house at 1 a.m., but only his father was home. "Where are your children and where is your wife?" they demanded.
Despite the string of close calls, Khaldoun stuck it out until the summer of 2014 and the dramatic phone calls from his aunt and mother. During the long cab ride to Beirut, Khaldoun passed through several checkpoints, including an excruciatingly long wait at the border. But apparently his name had not yet filtered down to the security forces.
Khaldoun said his mother was "crying - and I'm expecting them to take me in at any minute." Despite his successful escape, he's still troubled by the abruptness. "I didn't get to say goodbye to any of my friends - they just went to my house and said, 'Where is he?' "
It took Khaldoun five months to get a work permit; while he waits for a final asylum decision, he's moved into his own place in Narberth, joined by his brother, and taken a job at a restaurant in Bala Cynwyd while attending classes at Delaware County Community College.
"At this phase I'm still dizzy at everything that's going on," said Khaldoun.
With that, he ended the interview and headed off to a gym to work out, carrying the same duffel bag with which he had escaped Damascus.
On Twitter: @Will_Bunch