When Jihad (Jay) Abdo managed to flee Syria for the United States, he mistakenly believed his problems were largely behind him.
Having successfully received a visa for the US in Damascus and applied for refugee status in his new home of Los Angeles, he thought he was finally safe.
“I started getting these very dark and very scary threats on social media,” Abdo said at a Q&A session in London.
“I deleted some of them but my wife forced me to show the rest to the FBI – it was very scary.”
Abdo was once a famous actor in Syria, best known for his role in Bab al-Hara (The Neighbourhood Gate), one of the biggest Syrian soap operas ever, with up to 50 million viewers per episode.
In his own words, he was a successful man who lived well. He appeared in films and TV series – some of which were openly critical of the government.
“The message was always the same – the characters were critical of anonymous people in government but they never criticised the president himself,” he said.
These programmes allowed the regime to tell the outside world they were living in a democratic country where people could criticise the government – “but we weren’t, we were not free”, he said.
Shortly after protests started breaking out in Syria in 2011, Abdo opened up for the first time in an interview with an American reporter in Beirut.
The resulting story reported that Abdo’s character – not Abdo himself – was critical of the country’s security forces. The regime – notoriously thin-skinned and sensitive to even the smallest criticism – took exception, and Abdo said he immediately started receiving harassment when he returned to Damascus.
|Any activist event – for children, disabled people, anything – my wife and I were the first to be there. They called us and we went to every one|
“Soon after the article was published, I received a call from a TV executive who was partnered with the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad.
“He said: ‘why are you attacking your country, your president and your army?'”
Abdo was ordered to appear at a TV station and give an interview in support of the regime. He decided, with encouragement from his wife, not to attend.
Ten sleepless nights later, Abdo received the “impossible visa” to join his wife, Fadia Afashe, in Minnesota. He left with only his violin and wedding photos.
But soon after he arrived in the US, Abdo started receiving threatening phone calls from Syria again.
“I don’t know how they got my number,” he said.
The message was consistent and clear – keep your mouth shut.
But Abdo did not keep quiet, he became more vocal. He and his wife started campaigning everywhere – for women’s rights, for Syria, for local issues.
“Any activist event – for children, disabled people, anything – my wife and I were the first to be there. They called us and we went to every one,” he said.
Jihad the activist
Abdo was in town for a one-night performance of Whither would you go, a play that joins up the testimony of real-life refugee experiences with speeches from William Shakespeare.
“It’s a brilliant idea – it shows seven short videos of refugee problems from around the world, followed by a relevant scene from Shakespeare about the same topic.”
The play appeared for one night only at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre on October 22, with all proceeds going to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.
And Abdo knows all about refugee problems. As refugees to the US, he and his wife received no help from the state for many years. After “maybe 500 interviews”, he still had not found work as an actor, so he took up a job as a delivery driver, first for pizzas and later for flowers.
“I delivered flowers and pizzas for six months – it was very tiring and there was no money,” he said. Some weeks his average salary was as low as $300.
For a once-successful actor with classical training and more than a decade’s worth of showreel, Abdo said it was “tough, really tough” to have to start all over again.
“Going to Hollywood, where there are millions of other actors – I had to start from scratch.
|Watch: Jay Abdo’s showreel|
“I’d go to audition and see maybe 30 people that looked like me, or with darker skin. Sometimes they’d say I didn’t have dark enough skin to play a Middle Eastern person.”
Some of these actors were not even Arab, but rather Indians, Israelis or Iranians who could speak a few words in Arabic. There are relatively few trained actors who can speak Arabic in Hollywood, due in part to a dearth of serious roles.
Eventually it would be this main problem that would also become Abdo’s ticket back to fame. Director Werner Herzog was looking for an actor with an authentic Levantine accent for his new film, Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman.
|Arabic actors need to get trained if they are going to break out of the stereotype [of always playing the terrorist]|
Herzog had rejected the majority of trained actors because of their lack of Arabic – but he came across Abdo’s showreel via Abdo’s wife, Fadia.
“Arabic actors need to get trained if they are going to break out of the stereotype [of always playing the terrorist],” Abdo said.
“But they also need to get out there and meet people. That’s how I made it and all Arabic actors need to learn the same.”