“When I first arrived in Holland my primary goal was to increase my skills and deepen my experience as a dancer. I never planned to become a “public figure” and was not looking for media exposure. Still, I found out during my journey that my story can help people and I want this to continue.
It is about the message, not about my person. As an artist, I have a responsibility towards society. We will leave this world but what we do will stay. If I can help only one dancer in Syria, it will have been worth all the efforts.
I am doing everything I can to support other dancers in Syria and dancing refugees in Europe. My profile helps me to do that. For example, I collaborate with a manufacturer of dancing clothes. I have bought and sent dancing outfits to dancing schools back in Syria I used to teach dancing classes. They have nothing – they do not have any dancing shoes. Together with the Dutch National Ballet, we will also sponsor another dancer from Syria.
I also have a project to support SOS children. I am currently raising funds to build a second village in Syria. The one in Aleppo was destroyed and the on in Damascus is now so crowded that a second one is needed.
I am giving many shows to raise money for my students and for the people in Syria.
Most of the students I went to school with did not know about my story. They saw it on TV and said: “Oh, why did you not tell us you were going through all this!” When I was studying dancing in Damascus, I slept in a tent for three months, as my home had been destroyed. Later, I had to finance my studies with work. I went on tour with a dancing company. My friends at school did not know anything about this. Nobody asked. I did not have any shoes and wore the same tights for three years. I went to school casually, attended all classes and tried as much as possible to lead a normal life. I graduated in 2016.
The major turnaround in my life happened when the Dutch journalist, who had made a documentary from my story, contacted me. At that time, I had just graduated and was about to join the army. I honestly thought, I should share my story, in case I got killed.
How did I come to dancing? Well, my father is an artist and arts teacher. I grew up with music. As young children, he was teaching us how to play instruments and sing. I was eight years old, when I took part in a school performance. This was the first time I went out of the refugee camp to perform. This school presentation took place at the City Theatre. Our recital was followed by another musical presentation. While collecting the instruments and just about to leave I heard the music of Swan Lake. I went backstage to have a look. I thought art was just about singing and music and I was most surprised to see people dance. After we got back home, I started to try out some of the movements I had seen. My mum understood, as she had done some gymnastics when she was younger. She introduced me to some exercises to improve flexibility. I hid my passion from my father and from other male family members – I had seen girls doing ballet, but was totally ignorant to the fact that boys could do this too. No-one had ever told me this and caution prompted me to keep quiet.
Between the ages of 8 and 14, I danced whenever I felt strong emotional urges. I closed my bedroom door, lit some candles, put on some music and practiced. My mother supported my passion for dancing. Dancing became my vocation and helped me overcome frustrations I was experiencing at school. Although I was always an excellent student, I was also discriminated for being a refugee. Teachers constantly reminded me of my status and of the fact, that Syria was not my country. “Whatever high marks you get at school, you will be a refugee.” My grandfather had immigrated from Palestine in 1948. My mother is Syrian. Still, as a 3rd generation descendant, I was still a refugee.
All my life I wanted to be called “The Dancer” rather than “The Refugee”. But today, I am known as the Syrian dancer, even if technically I am not Syrian. I am very proud.
Dancing taught me how to be strong and control my feelings. Whenever you go on stage, you have to have your feelings under control. Whatever your emotional state – the show must go on. One day I faced Al Qaida – it was the day I saw my home destroyed. I had seven uncles and all of them were devastated, angry and crying. I was also in shock, but luckily kept a cool head. An Al Qaida fighter threatened one of my uncles. I found the courage to stand between him and the gun. The fighter shot above our heads. My mother’s screams of fear still haunt me.
My father was quite ok with me dancing during my 1st year of studies, but then people in our community started to talk. Pressure on my parents was mounting, as it was scandalous, for a male teenager to dance for a company. Hence, my father tried to prevent me from continuing to dance. He wanted me to stop, but I resisted. His reputation was at stake – and he was ashamed of me. A male dancer in the family was not on. Meanwhile I was 17 years old and dancing was my life. There was no war yet, but I certainly fought my own. My father ended up leaving the house and we did not speak for years. Now, that I am in Europe he is proud of me and we are on speaking terms again. I would love to see my family reunited.
Dancing has given me the strength to face many obstacles that came my way. It has shaped my personality. Because I am a dancer, I am alive.
I want to help my country and my only means are my dancing skills. I did some choreography for the Opera House, even during the war. But more than anything, I wanted to help shape the future of the country and the future lies in the children. I went to a school of war orphans, SOS Village, and offered to teach the children to dance. At first I was laughed at. “Why are you here?” “How do you expect to help?” I replied: “Just let me try.” I could sense how dancing could help these children. Some of them had their parents killed in front of their eyes. Such horrendous incidents can have an effect on their behaviour and also their interaction with others. Teaching them to dance released their pent-up anger. They started to help each other more, at first with just little gestures, like getting each other a glass of water. I had girls wearing headscarves from strict conservative families and I paired them with a boy, saying: “Let’s dance salsa!” There was resistance at first as they refused to touch the boys. I wanted to break this old conservative way of thinking. Arab folks have beautiful traditions but there is today very little freedom to express oneself.
I have also worked with children with Down Syndrome. A dancing contest was held between specialized schools from different countries. I was asked to prepare some children for this competition. I chose a traditional dance, as I could not let them touch each other. The
School Director was very conservative and adamant. But, at least they danced together and at an event in Lebanon they even won. I could see what joy dancing brought them.
Because I am a Palestinian in Syria, I have no rights to the respective nationality. At the beginning this was very painful for me, because I felt so different. Today, I consider this to be special – I am from everywhere.
My first dancing show took place at the Theatre of Palmyra. My very last show before I left Syria also took place there. ISIS used the Palmyra theatre to murder people. I had to make them understood, that this place is for art, even at the cost of my own life. Together with a journalist accompanying me, I managed to get a permit to go there. ISIS fighters were close by. My mother is from Palmyra and it meant a lot to me to be back there. It feels a bit like my hometown. This was my fight, my way to show that young Syrians can also be artists, human beings, who fight for peace. And I wanted to bring back the soul of art to heal this place.
I started at the barre the very next day after my arrival in Holland. There was no time to be sad, no time to waste, no time for nostalgia. I wanted to work. Dancing here is amazing. Back in Syria I was not allowed to use studios, so I was dancing on the roof of my building. I would create my own reasons to dance. I would pick music and create some choreography. Today, here in Amsterdam, I am on stage with the same dancers I used to watch on YouTube.
This motivates me so much. Teachers here are very encouraging. I am now able to unlock my potential. I am able to progress a lot, as I have highly qualified teachers in a sound infrastructure.
How dancing saved my life? We had a show at the Opera House in Damascus. I was the lead dancer. That day was the final rehearsal before the premiere. On the way to the theatre, I got stuck with my best friend, also a dancer for the same company, in this building, that was under attack. It was a battlefield and we were surrounded by tanks, fighter planes and fighting men. ISIS and gunmen were everywhere. We were stuck between fighting ISIS and the Government forces. I was desperate to join the rehearsals, but due to the fighting could not leave the shelter. The following day was premiere and I had to go – not matter what. I left the shelter, although everybody warned me against it. As I peeked out, I faced a gunman. I had no idea from which side he was. I have a tattoo – I had hidden it carefully, as it is against the Islam to have tattoos. The man pointed his gun at me. Luckily he was from the opposition and he helped me to get everyone out of the shelter and safely out of the building.
I danced that night.
After I got back home, I heard that the building had collapsed shortly after we were rescued.
Dancing had saved my life that day, along with the lives of other people.”