Op-Ed: In Syria, my fame became a curse. Now it helps give meaning to my journey as a refugee

Four people, outlined in shadow, appear to gaze into the distance as they stand near a tree
Migrants walk in Edirne, Turkey, near the Turkish-Greek border, on March 4, 2020.
(Darko Bandic / Associated Press)

In my homeland of Syria, I thought my fame would protect me. But after I received attention for seeming to speak out against the totalitarian and violent Assad regime, being famous suddenly became a curse. It sent me on a punishing journey I never would have chosen but which has had its own unexpected rewards.

I knew everything was about to change when the head of a major Syrian movie studio ordered me to appear on television and apologize for something I would never have dared to say in public. An August 2011 front-page article in the Los Angeles Times had begun by saying I had openly accused Syrian “security forces of torture and corruption.”

Not until the third paragraph did the journalist make her writerly reveal: I was actually delivering a line of dialogue playing the hero in a soap opera whose title roughly translated to “Torn From the Womb.” That it was a character speaking, not me as myself, would not matter to the government.


Syrian soap operas get real this Ramadan

Aug. 13, 2011

Since the Syrian uprising against Assad had begun months earlier, the secret police had tried to recruit me and many other public figures for its propaganda machine. I resisted and avoided speaking out against the regime. But the article had made one truth clear: I did not support the villainous Syrian President Bashar Assad or his henchmen.

There would be no TV apology from me, and life as I knew it would soon be over.

The secret police began repeatedly threatening me, making the land beneath my feet feel like it was quaking. I knew that the Syrian regime was like an octopus’ mafia — if you were able to escape one tentacle another one would ensnare you.

I was also acutely aware of the harrowing punishment being meted out to other artists. Ali Farzat, a famous political cartoonist, was badly beaten, his fingers deliberately broken by pro-Assad gunmen. A few months later, Zaki Kordelo, an actor and my treasured friend, was forcibly disappeared overnight.

At any moment, I expected a horrifying death to come my way.

In my 50s, I was forced to flee my country, leaving behind my elderly parents, a vibrant acting career, my house, all my assets. And I began a journey of survival as a refugee, becoming one of the more than 89 million people in the world who have had to escape persecution, war and natural disasters.

Fortunately, my wife was already in the U.S. studying public policy at the University of Minnesota, and I joined her there in October 2011. When she asked me to sign an application to apply for asylum in the U.S., she shared a painful truth that horrified me: “There is no more home to go back to.”


Soon, I would even leave behind my given name. Every time I introduced myself to someone in Minnesota, they would react with incredulity. So Jihad — a common name back home — became Jay. If only reinventing yourself in another country was as simple as changing your name.

The asylum process dragged on for years. Life was brutal and perpetually on hold. We struggled to find work. I got pizza and flower delivery jobs, but I didn’t even make enough to cover our groceries. Visits to the doctor were an unaffordable luxury. We were starving, scared and very much alone.

But we had each other, and we found strength in knowing that the high price we were paying was because we had taken a moral stand, along with other innocent people, against the killing machine that is the Syrian regime.

In an attempt to resuscitate my acting career, we made our way to Los Angeles in 2012. I would go on more than a hundred auditions without landing a part. Finally, I connected with the director Werner Herzog, who cast me in his 2015 film “Queen of the Desert,” starring Nicole Kidman. Parts in other films featuring such actors as Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck would follow.

My wife eventually secured a good job in her field, which freed me to pursue acting. Nearly a decade would pass before we became U.S. citizens. By any measure, we are a success story — refugees who were able to build a productive new life in America.

On Nov. 13, 1970, Hafez Assad, a young career air force officer, took power in Syria in a bloodless coup, the latest in a succession of military takeovers since independence from France in 1946.

Nov. 13, 2020

Since I became a refugee more than a decade ago, the global refugee population has more than doubled. By one accounting, more than two-thirds of us have come from just five countries. It’s not surprising to me that Syria leads the list, with nearly 7 million displaced people. Millions live in refugee camps, essentially forgotten by the world at large.

In every moral challenge, some people find the fortitude to stand up while others don’t. Some Syrian artists who were once my friends became cheerleaders for the Assad regime. They chose to remain on the dark side of history. I chose to seek the light.

In the short drama “Facing Mecca,” I play a Syrian refugee who struggles to bury his wife in accordance with Muslim rites. When it won a Student Academy Award in 2017, it made me believe I could turn to film to raise awareness about the plight of refugees and highlight other injustices in the world.

Fellow refugees often tell me my story helped them hold on to hope in their darkest moments. That has made me realize I already inhabit my greatest role: speaking out for refugees and those who are unable to escape the violence and chaos in their home countries, whether through activism or the film projects I pursue. And this is why my journey as a refugee will never end.

Jay Abdo is an actor and producer. He will receive FilmAid’s Richard C. Holbrooke Award for Humanitarian Service on Oct. 12. @JayAbdoActor.