Living in a Syrian refugee camp is a less not an ideal way to spend your formative years, but for Khalil, music was his saving grace.
At refugee camps, there wasn’t much to do,” he said. “Gathering around each other and playing music was something we did.”
Khalil’s love for music started at home. He said his dad would always play music and loved it.
Growing up, Khalil wanted to play the keyboard but never had the money to buy one until he moved to the United States.
Despite music being his true passion, Khalil decided to pursue barbing as a career. He currently manages Lincoln-based barbershop Golden Scissors, located on 31st and Holdrege.
As of 2017, Khalil is one of nearly 3,000 Yazidi refugees living in Lincoln, the largest Yazidi population in the United States, 500 person increase from 2014, according to the United Yezidi Community of America.
Khalil and his parents left Iraq in the late 1980s when he was just 3 years old. They moved to Syria and lived in refugee camps until moving to the United States in 1999, residing first in Buffalo, New York.
To Khalil, culture shock doesn’t begin to describe what it was like for him to arrive in the United States.
“[My family and I] didn’t know anything about the world. There was no internet [in the camps],” he said. “I didn’t know what the U.S. was or where it was at. I just knew we were going to America.”
Khalil lived next door to a barbershop and was drawn in by its friendly environment. He said the environment at the shop motivated him to start barbing hair, a skill he learned from young age living in the Syrian refugee camp.
“People are always happy in a barbershop,” he said.
This motivated him to start at a barbershop called Golden Scissor in Buffalo, which he later sold before moving to Lincoln in early 2010. He then worked at another Buffalo barbershop called Fresh 2 Def Cuts.
Despite knowing the basics of barbing, Khalil said he still felt inadequate compared to his coworkers.
“I would hear people say, ‘This Middle Eastern guy can’t cut hair,’” he said. “I was the barber that everyone looked down on.”
One day, Khalil left his clippers, bag and everything that he had in the barbershop, and went home during his lunch break.
“I was embarrassed to tell [my bosses] that I quit,” he said. “I was convinced that [barbing] wasn’t for me.”
Months after Khalil left the barbershop, his friend and boss Angel Mercado saw him one day at a corner store and spoke with him for over half an hour, trying to convince Khalil to come back to the barbershop.
“When I saw him, I wanted him to come back because I believed in him and how sweet he was, but he always had that complex that he wasn’t as good as everybody in the shop,” Mercado said. “He was kind of intimidated by the other barbers around him and those were all the barbers who believed in him.”
By the time Mercado saw Khalil at the corner store, a majority of barbers at the shop had left and started their own barbershops.
“I told him, ‘There’s no one there except me and another barber.’, so he gave it another shot,” Mercado said.
Khalil said if it wasn’t for his friend and coworker Angel convincing him to go back, he would’ve quit barbing for good.
”I had that one person that never gave up on me,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to prove [the naysayers] wrong.”
He also said his love for barbing also motivated him.
“If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it,” Khalil said.
By working hard and staying in the barbershop late, Khalil eventually took co-ownership of Fresh 2 Def Cuts and continues to monitor the store.
While barbing helps Khalil financially, he said he still pursues his love for music.
When he arrived in Lincoln, he started a band with other Yazidis called Golden Studio and perform at many Yazidi weddings.
He said music serves as an outlet for him to tell others about his experiences living in refugee camps.
“You got things inside you and sometimes you don’t know how to [express] them with words,” he said. “It’s like a sense of relief for me when I play.”
Despite being a Yazidi band, Khalil said he wants his band to branch out to different cultures.
”I’ve been convinced that music is a universal language,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where it comes from.”
Whether it’s music, barbing, or any other passion in life, Khalil believes that it’s worth chasing after and pursuing.
“It doesn’t matter what happens,” he said. ”You’ll never know until you try.”