Ahmed Shehalo always imagined his firstborn would be named Muslim, in honor of his late father. But when the phone call came in early October announcing the birth of his son in a hospital in Turkey, there was no room for debate.
“I told them: ‘Name him Obama,’ ” recalls the stocky Kurdish-Syrian as he sits in a blue tent with fellow refugees from his hometown of Kobane.
Launched in late September by President Barack Obama, US-led air strikes in Syria have so far blunted a major offensive by the Islamic State (IS) group against Kobane. The ongoing fighting has destroyed much of the town, including Mr. Shehalo's home.
“Before the war we had two ‘brothers’ – one Turkish, one Arab – but they stood by and did nothing. Only Obama helped us in our time of need, so I named my son after him as a gesture of thanks,” says Shehalo, known now as Abu Obama.
In Kobane, he lived with his wife, Farida Hamed, in a cozy apartment in a low-rise building. When IS militants got dangerously close, Ms. Hamed crossed the border by foot with her in-laws. The mother gave birth in a Turkish hospital room. Her sisters, scattered by war, still don’t know she had a son.
At first, the name Obama did not impress her much, but she acquiesced. Ten days later, when her husband crossed into Turkey, she told him: “Obama is difficult to pronounce. It doesn’t roll off the tongue.” Shehalo reassured her that the name would soon become second nature.
"Obama, Kobane, Sinjar – these are the names of the babies born in the last few months," says Fawzo Abdi, another native of Kobane who is now in Turkey helping coordinate aid efforts for the embattled town.
Abu Obama’s family is currently staying in a cramped shed adjacent to a barn occupied by chickens and cows. They are one of 60 families that have found shelter in the Kurdish village of Çengok, preferring rudimentary housing and the charity of kinsmen to Turkish government camps.
The bucolic village is just a few miles from IS-held territory in Syria. The moan of drones lull Obama to sleep; the roar of rockets and the thump of air strikes jolt him awake. When coalition forces strike IS positions on the other side, the ground shakes.
Winter hasn’t arrived in full force yet, but Obama recently caught cold despite the family's best efforts to keep him warm, all bundled up in blankets next to a crackling wood stove. Doctors recommended changing his powdered milk and keeping him away from cold drafts.
“When I saw my son in this tiny, miserable room – I thought to myself: Not here. We should be home. All the things I had bought for him before he was born got left behind and destroyed in Kobane,” Abu Obama says. “This is war. Some lose their lives, I lost my home.”
The dream of victory and going home keeps him going. While Abu Obama praises Obama's airstrikes, he adds that victory is impossible without arming Kobane's defenders – which include Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters as well as Syrian Arabs – with tanks and heavy weapons.
His family’s lives upended by war, Abu Obama makes no plans anymore. But should they have another child, he has his names lined up.
“If it is a girl, I will name her Michelle like Obama’s wife. If it is a boy, we will call him Peshmerga, because they were the next to defend us,” he says.