The plight of refugees fleeing persecution and living in limbo is no laughing matter, so how can one possibly find something funny in it?
If you are a stand-up comic born in Kuwait to stateless Palestinian parents, you find that humour in what happens to you when you travel with no passport.
“It took me 20 years to get my (American citizenship),” says Mo Amer, star of Netflix comedy special The Vagabond and headliner at a refugee fundraiser in Toronto on Aug. 16.
“I think I will call it extreme vetting.”
In the interim, Amer had to rely on a refugee travel document: “On the front, it looked really official and made me look like a diplomat. However, on the inside, in all caps, it said NOT A U.S. PASSPORT. It confused immigration officers globally.” In his Netflix special, Amer recalls having to explain to a border official that he was Palestinian and didn’t have a passport. When the officer asked him why not, Amer responded: “‘Cause Palestine’s not a state!’ (The officer) goes, ‘Well, why don’t you make it a state?’ I was like, ‘Have you not read the news the last 70 years?’”
As a refugee, “you experience prejudice, heartache and all these emotions, and the only way to get through it is to laugh and make something funny out of the situation,” says Amer, 38, who will host Friday’s Stand Up For Refugees fundraiser in support of the UN Refugee Agency and the 6.7 million Syrians still in limbo in the Middle East.
Amer, his mother and sister fled Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1990, arriving in the United States. His father joined them later.
“My stand-up special was formulated from those experiences. It takes somebody who lived that experience from the inside to pull that off. My job is to make you laugh, but the best stand-up comedians not only make you laugh — they make you think.”
Amer, who will share the stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts with three Canadian comics — Ali Hassan, Nour Hadidi and Hoodo Hersi — says he probably wouldn’t have become a comic without the opportunity given to him by his Grade 9 English teacher in Houston who let him do stand-up in front of the class.
At the time, Amer was mourning the loss of his father, who died in 1995, and he had become increasingly withdrawn.
“I was skipping school and I would do anything else but go to school,” he says over the phone. “My teacher asked me one day how my father would feel if I did not graduate from high school.”
Recognizing Amer’s passion for comedy, she offered to let him perform his stand-up routine in class if he would stop skipping school and agree to recite Shakespeare every day. His gift for mastering different accents made his classmates laugh.
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Instead of shying away from his past, Amer now uses it to educate and entertain. His stand-up material explores being a migrant and going through the citizenship process.
“The (asylum) system is just so ridiculous. There are so many holes in it. I just wanted to highlight how ridiculous the system is,” Amer says. “As a former refugee, it’s important to use my celebrity to raise funds and awareness for refugees.”
Hadidi, who quit her job as a consultant at an accounting firm in 2017 to work as a full-time comedian, says she is familiar with refugee issues because she was born and raised in Jordan, home to hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants caught up in conflicts across the Middle East.
“I do not try to be an activist, but I write about what I know,” says Hadidi, who has written for This Hour has 22 Minutes and The Beaverton.
“Why is it everywhere people of colour go, others call them migrants. When white people do it, they are expats? It’s because of our double standard,” says the 30-year-old Torontonian, who acknowledges her own privilege of being able to come to Canada 12 years ago to study at McGill University.
Hassan, host of radio show Laugh Out Loud, was born in Canada to Pakistani immigrant parents who left everything behind. He says he admires Amer’s ability to talk about the refugee experience in a funny way.
“Mo makes jokes about his refugee experience, but he doesn’t punch down on refugees… It’s challenging to make jokes out of the refugee experience and make it accessible, but he has given a human face on the refugee crisis.
“My closest experience of being a refugee was when I was laid off from my IT job in Chicago after (the terrorist attacks on) 9/11 and became unemployed and illegal in the U.S. No one would hire someone with the name, Ali Hassan,” says the 46-year-old.
Hersi, who juggles her comic career with a daytime teaching job, says some of the best comedians don’t make fun of people, but rather their points of view and pushes them to extreme absurdity.
“You write jokes about religion and race and call out the stereotypes. If (the jokes) are well written and you are not trying to be mean, people can tell the difference,” says the 28-year-old, who was born in Canada to a Somali father and Djibouti mother. “Comedy is about telling truth in a funny way.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung