Today I’m celebrating my first Independence Day as a US citizen, eating barbecued veggie burgers and watching the Universal Studios fireworks with friends. I’m so grateful for the incredible hospitality I’ve received from ordinary Americans, and for the community I’ve found since being granted asylum here.
In the summer of 2011, I was a well-known actor in Syria, having recently starred in Bab al-Hara, a hit soap opera across the Arab world. The Arab Spring was spreading across Syria, and I received a phone call that changed my life forever. I was asked to appear on television and discourage the protests — officials wanted to use my fame to help stop the demonstrations.
Of course, I fully supported the protesters. And I soon realized that I could no longer safely stay in the country I loved.
My wife and I were granted asylum in the United States. It was devastating to leave my aging parents along with my brother and sister, in Syria. We loved our life in the vibrant city of Damascus, where I was starring in a beloved TV show and my wife was a celebrated painter and women’s rights activist.
When we arrived here, we had no credit or work history. We used our only savings to pay our landlady six months of rent in one lump sum to convince her to rent us an apartment. I spent years delivering pizza and flowers and driving for Uber, while my wife tried to sell her crafts on eBay.
Slowly, life got easier: I had more auditions, and my wife now has a job working on social policy. I also regularly share our story, most recently last month at the One Journey Festival in Washington, D.C., which honors refugee talents and contributions.
But so many others like us are now barred from entering this country. The Trump Administration wants to slash the number of refugees admitted to the US to just 30,000, the lowest number in more than 40 years — even when the number of refugees displaced from their homes around the world tops 70 million.
Like most of those people, I will never return to my home — I have received terrifying threats warning me that I would be tortured or killed if I go back. That breaks our hearts. It also gives us a burning desire to establish ourselves in our adopted country and prove that we belong here. And as I celebrate my first Independence Day as an American, I want to remind everyone of how much refugees contribute to this country, and about how eager we are to build meaningful lives here.
Today, I’m working again as an actor. I’ve starred in films with Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks, and in the Oscar-nominated short films Bon Voyage and Facing Mecca. I’m incredibly lucky to live here in freedom and safety, especially when so many people back home continue to suffer under the Assad regime.
As a group, refugees in the US earn more than $77 billion a year and pay nearly $21 billion in taxes, according to research by New American Economy, a bipartisan, nonprofit group. In the film industry, there are more than 25,000 foreign-born actors, producers and directors.
We have worked hard to earn our place here, and have met so many good people along the way. My wish this July 4 is for the US government to open its arms to more refugees with the same spirit that the American people have opened their hearts to us.
Jay Abdo is an actor and performer with the One Journey Festival, which celebrates refugee contributions.