- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

DENVER (AP) - Laila Alawa didn’t expect much when Amal Kassir walked onstage to perform spoken-word poetry at Wellesley College.

“She looks like a typical Muslim girl, very calm and very sweet,” said Alawa, a Muslim American activist and blogger. “I was honestly doubtful because I’d heard other poets, and they weren’t that powerful. But when she got up on the stage, she blew me out my seat.”

My Grandmother always had dinner on the table.

Even when the tyrant put checkpoints outside her door,

her defiance made mealtimes a battle her family would always win.

Kassir, 18, is a product of the suburbs. Her parents own two Middle Eastern restaurants in metro Denver, and she grew up in Aurora, attending Smoky Hill High School. As a Muslim girl, she is defying the stereotype of Muslim women as shy, soft-spoken and powerless. She’s an activist in the fight to end the Syrian civil war, and winning an international poetry-slam award gave her a platform for promoting her humanitarian work.

“I was always outgoing,” said Kassir. “I realized I was smart and that I could dominate a stage, and have an influence rather than be influenced.”

Now a junior at the University of Colorado Denver, she says her passion for making the world a better place sometimes diverts her from buckling down to study for classes such as geology and physics.

When not attending classes, working at her bank job or helping out at the family business, she travels the country performing at various events - and in the process, she’s breaking the stereotypes of Muslim American women, especially those who wear head scarves.

I represent the political party

that stands on behalf of the half naked Barbie.

I represent the woman of the 21st century

and this woman has everything … except for her dignity.

She recently hosted the annual banquet for Islamic Relief USA in Aurora. She started the nonprofit Project More Than Metaphors to raise money for humanitarian assistance in Syria. Later this year, she will perform in Australia and Lebanon, and she often performs at colleges around the country.

“She’s extremely talented, and the way she expresses her ideas is very powerful,” said Racan Alhoch, who first met Kassir when she traveled to Washington, D.C., to perform at a rally he hosted on the anniversary of Syria’s revolution.

Friends describe her as humble, compassionate and outspoken. She doesn’t drink or smoke, and the only time she has been in clubs were for poetry slams. Her family - parents and four siblings - keeps her grounded.

“At the end of the day, they view me as a waitress who sometimes talks too much,” said Kassir, who works in the family business at the Damascus Restaurant in Denver and the Damascus Grill in Littleton.

Kassir’s life changed overnight in 2012, when she won the Grand Slam at the Brave New Voices International Youth Competition. The poem was about Syria, and almost immediately the teenager began getting calls from humanitarian groups around the country.

Limbs of what was once my family lie in my arms

My throat was stolen

My blood screams

Seven generations tortured

Lord, send angel Azrael to guard the souls

Let them know that they are still living

And let the living hear the anthem of something

“It’s extremely normal for Muslim American women to be spoken of, but not be talking themselves,” said Alawa, founder and editor of “Coming of Faith,” an online platform for young Muslim American women. “Amal really takes to mind that she has a responsibility to speak up, and that she does have something valuable to share.”

Kassir is the fourth of five siblings born to Melissa and Mahmoud Kassir. Her father, raised Muslim in Syria, met her mother - a Muslim convert living in Nebraska - and they moved to Denver to join a growing Muslim community.

Passion for human rights is part of her nature, her mother said, recalling how the family was cleaning out the garage when Kassir was 4, and the child climbed atop the pile of castoff items and began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

“She thrust her finger in the air and shouted, ‘And liberty and justice for all!’ ” Melissa Kassir recalled.

Two years later, the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. Someone threw a brick through the window of the family restaurant, and Melissa Kassir was called names for wearing a hijab. The parents decided it was a good time for mom and the children to learn more about Syria, so they moved to Amal’s grandmother’s farm on the outskirts of Damascus.

Amal Kassir lived in Syria three years, learning Arabic and bonding with the large extended family, which included 60 people.

A decade later, back in America, Kassir grieved as 15 of those family members were killed during the Syrian civil war. She channeled those emotions into her poetry - an art form she discovered at Smoky Hill when Jovan Mays, a national poetry-slam award winner, came to work with students.

In college, she’s focusing on education that will allow her to work with children who are psychologically traumatized by living in war zones.

“I realized it’s no use trying to change the system,” she said, “but I want to help people victimized by it.”


Information from: The Denver Post, https://www.denverpost.com



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