“The pain of refugees is a part of me . . .”

Mouhanad Al Rifay
Mouhanad Al Rifay, is a Syrian-American award-winning documentary filmmaker, humanitarian and human rights activist. At Harvard's CMES he is focused on journalism and narrative writing, and developing further expertise in Middle-East-focused critical political and cultural commentary. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2014 with a B.A. in Psychology, International Development and Conflict Management, Al Rifay managed various USAID-funded programs at leading international development organizations in Washington, D.C. He also co-founded the Syrian-American Network for Aid and Development, SANAD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the education of Syrian children. In 2018, Al Rifay released his first short documentary, Tomorrow's Children, that exposes the suffering of six Syrian refugee children forced into child labor. Tomorrow's Children won the Impact Award at the 2018 San Francisco International Festival of Short Films, and is now available on Amazon Prime. Al Rifay also helped produce a weekly Arabic-speaking political program that interviewed U.S. policymakers, and published many articles in leading publications like the Huffington Post and Lebanese Daily Star. He has been involved in the Syrian democracy movement years before the uprising, disseminating information about human rights violations to Western media, and was featured in many media outlets including The Washington Post, Lawfare, NPR, AJ+, Al Jazeera Arabic, and Harvard Gazette. Al Rifay was a political asylee and received U.S. citizenship in 2015.

Interview with Jay (Jihad) Abdo. Photo credits to Fadia Afashe.

On 24 October 2020 Syrian-American Hollywood actor Jay (Jihad) Abdo cast his vote for the first time ever in a presidential election. He and his wife Fadia Afashe, a lawyer and visual artist, were never allowed to participate in free elections before or even have the choice to vote for a presidential candidate whom they felt connected with. Jay and Fadia were silenced citizens. They didn’t choose to be silent, they were gagged by a bloody regime to which violence has no limits. Yet in the 2020 US election, along with thousands of Syrian-Americans, Jay and Fadia made their voices heard loudly.

In 2011 Jay, Fadia and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of ordinary and not so ordinary Syrians tore out the bloody gags that choked them for generations. The couple couldn’t simply march down the streets of Damascus or Homs alongside peaceful protesters, they had to be careful. Jay and Fadia are well known artists with a responsibility and public influence that attract the regime’s ire, violence and retribution. Nonetheless, unlike the majority of Syrian artists they refused to be muzzled, especially as the Assad regime’s military industrial complex dropped its barrel bombs, missiles, and chemical weapons over Syrian cities indiscriminately, intentionally targeting civilians and wiping out entire neighborhoods that rose against it.

In the years leading up to the 2011 uprising, dubbed the Dignity Revolution, Syrian artists were organized into informal camps depending on their relationship with the Assad regime and the intelligence apparatus. Those favored by the regime establishment had more opportunities to rise within the Syrian scene of visual and performing arts. Others who maintained a distance from the regime like Jay and Fadia, were “used for the regime’s narrative” Jay told me over the phone. “The regime uses the opposition to showcase an illusion of democracy projected at the free world,” a fake facade of controlled characters playing parts in a false narrative fooling no one. Some artists voluntarily played the role; others had no choice.

Given his success and fame in Syrian drama, film and television, Jay found himself frequently invited to speak at talk shows produced by the Syrian state television about liberty, human rights, and equality with other liberal and progressive artists from his small circle of friends and colleagues. “We attempted to express our hopes and ideals through our work, despite the circumstances forced upon us. Our scripts and scenarios showcased a thirst for freedom, democracy and justice,” Jay said, “justifying our covert activism as a response to statements and opinions expressed by the President [Bashar Al-Assad] himself” and embodied in the regime’s narrative of counterfeit democracy.

They chose to remain distanced, despite the privileges provided by the regime to favored artists. “I never received any support from the Syrian state or statesmen. I was always chosen for roles based on my talent and abilities to play the characters. In fact,” Jay said “I was told by producers that my name was forcefully removed from casting lists on orders of the regime, or that I was denied a leading role in favor of a regime favorite.” Multiple branches of the Syrian intelligence apparatus have to grant official approvals for film and television productions.

Early in 2011 during the popular peaceful uprising, Jay and Fadia were full of hope. They believed that true change was possible and that Syria was on the cusp of a historic moment in which its democratic aspirations were finally tangible. “Fadia and I were excited to see the regime fall or implement true systemic reform in the Syrian constitution and state institutions . . . we didn’t expect the regime to be this bloody and stupid.” When the regime started committing massacres, “I wanted it to fall, but I was terrified,” Jay said earnestly. “I was so afraid to speak up because I lived under two bloody dictatorships, that of Hafez Al-Assad in Syria and Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania. I know what it means to live in fear.” In 1980 Jay received a scholarship to study civil engineering in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and graduated in 1987. During his time there, communist Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife Elena ruled Romania with an iron fist, devastating the country and its people. Nicolae and Elena, were executed by a firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989 after being convicted of geneocide.

The regime’s illusion of civil modernity and Bashar Al-Assad’s narrative of democracy, spearheaded by his British wife Asma, was shattered by his bloodthirsty military campaign against Syrian civilians, whose only fault was demanding true implementation of the democratic narrative. “We couldn’t imagine the extent of the regime’s violence and brutality.”

By October of 2011, Jay had to flee Syria after stating in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that “the government, military, intelligence branches, and the President are responsible for the bloodshed.” For weeks he was harassed and intimidated by the state media, pressuring him to apologize and praise the dictator Bashar Al-Assad publicly. He “didn’t respond to their pressures, but couldn’t say no,” especially after a number of his artist friends were arrested and disappeared like Zaki Cordello and Samar Kokash, both actors. “Samar Kokash was detained for five years after helping an injured young girl, and donating bread to [internally displaced] people sleeping under street trees in Damascus . . . five years . . . she was like a flower.”

Jay had planned to meet with Zaki Cordello to produce slogans for the revolution, yet Zaki was arrested the day before.

Fadia was already in the United States in August 2011 studying at the University of Minnesota, months after the revolution began, when the famous Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat was kidnapped and assaulted by an armed pro-Assad militia in Damascus after releasing multiple anti-government cartoons ridiculing Bashar Al-Assad. They hammered his hands, intentionally smashing his fingers, as a warning statement to artists who dared use their craft and public influence against the Assad regime. Battered and bloodied, Ali Ferzat was dumped on the side of the Damascus International Airport highway. As Ali Ferzat’s story shocked the world and received wide international coverage, Fadia urged Jay to leave Syria.

Four days after Jay received his US visa, he left Damascus. “I thought I would return within months . . . the regime was destined to fall,” he said. “You’ll laugh at me if I tell you this, but I left some dishes in the sink and gave the plants extra water, enough for a month.” Jay exhaled telling me that he had made two years’ worth of mortgage payments before leaving. “It’s all gone now . . . like all of Syria. Money is nothing, so many young men and women are gone . . . Who cares about money?”

“In Syria life is expendable, it’s worthless. Doesn’t matter if you’re a scientist, a woman or a child

. . . in Syria your life is worthless.”

By the end of 2011, Jay and Fadia decided to apply for political asylum in the US. As death threats and violence increased, they knew there was no way back to Syria. For them, Syria was home no more. Almost overnight, Jay found himself working as an Uber driver and delivering pizza and flowers in LA, where he and Fadia relocated to after her graduation from the University of Minnesota. “I enjoyed Uber. I got to know many different people, and very interesting characters that helped me learn more about the American society” Jay told me with a diligent voice, “It made me feel like I belong, even though I made very little money.”

Fadia waited fifteen months or more for her work permit, while Jay tried to secure a living auditioning for acting roles in LA. They filled their time volunteering for nonprofit organizations that provided help for Syrian refugees in the US and abroad. “Just like we needed help, many

other people did too. So we tried our best, with the little resources we had.”

Jay introduced himself to Hollywood playing small unpaid roles in short films directed by young graduating film students, whom he met while volunteering at various nonprofits in LA. Little did he know that his small steps were in fact paving the way for a major breakthrough starring alongside Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman and actor James Franco in the 2015 major motion picture Queen of the Desert, directed by German film director Werner Herzog.

“Herzog was looking for an authentic Levantine actor to play the role. He didn’t want someone who appeared from the region, he wanted an actor from the region who understood the culture and spoke the Arabic language. And I was able to add to the role because I play the Rebab and recite poetry,” Jay explained. In Queen of the Desert, Jay in fact plays the Rebab on screen, possibly for the first time in a major western motion picture. And in 2016, Jay starred in A Hologram for the King alongside Tom Hanks.

Like most refugees and asylum seekers in the United States, Jay was unable to use his Syrian passport for any international travel. He had to apply for a Refugee Travel Document, which has its own special process and is issued by the USCIS. “I almost missed filming Queen of the

Desert on location in Morocco. I almost missed all the films, but Fadia, a young lawyer, gave me the greatest support.” Fadia independently followed up with USCIS, and expedited the process for Jay. And she also helped secure him the necessary visas, explaining to Arab embassies the urgency. Arab states do not formally recognize Refugee Travel Documents, and Fadia had to pull some strings.

Three of Jay’s short films were shortlisted for Academy Awards: Bon Voyage (2016), Facing Mecca (2017), and Refugee (2020). Each of the three shorts depicts a different juncture in the overarching plight experienced by millions of refugees worldwide, particularly Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea or fleeing indiscriminate bombardment of their hometowns by the Assad regime military.

Being a refugee himself, Jay’s performance transformed completely. “I think of the characters on a much deeper level than before. Their pain is now mine, not that of other people. The pain of refugees is a part of me, my essence and my existence. I don’t only study the pain of a character I’m playing, I carry it with me.” With a doleful tone, he said “there is now a sense of unity, an equality, between the character and me.” Despite his academic and extensive professional background, Jay now wields his own personal experiences, and those of his friends and colleagues, to enrich the characters he plays on the screen, that otherwise may fall flat or seem one dimensional.

In 2017 Jay and Fadia attended the 89th Academy Awards ceremony, carrying with them the aching hearts, pride, hopes and aspirations of a broken people from a shattered land called Syria. And in 2020, as the Syrian civil war entered its 10th year, with their newly freed voices Jay and Fadia voted loudly against injustice and stood firmly for the intrinsic right of immigrants and refugees to live in peace, free from fear or persecution.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *