(This article originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 8/19/17.)
Eight years ago, Kim Schultz was living the life of a young New York City multi-hyphenate, making a name for herself as an actor, playwright, and teacher of improv comedy. In 2009, she was invited to join an artists’ delegation in the Middle East. One of their goals was to interview Iraqi refugees in three countries. Schultz no doubt expected some culture shock and many colorful memories— but what she didn’t expect was falling in love with a handsome Iraqi refugee living in Syria. It was a moment that would change her life forever in many ways— and give the artist a new, broader humanitarian mission as well. Schultz shares her unique, eye-opening experiences in her new memoir Three Days in Damascus: An Unexpected Love Story in the Middle of A Refugee Crisis.
Three Days in Damascus is deeply personal, but it’s also richly imbued with fascinating historical, cultural, and political perspective… as well as a generous helping of the author’s smart sense of humor. As the subtitle reveals, this is indeed a love story. Love happened, quickly and unexpectedly, when Schultz met a fellow creative soul named Omar at an artist’s meet-and-greet in pre-civil war Syria. It was a challenging match: a fiercely independent New York girl and a charming, sloe-eyed visionary who, sadly, would likely never return to his own country. In one passage, Schultz pondered, “I try to imagine what it might be like in Baghdad with Omar when he shows me his jasmine, when we walk along the streets of his childhood, in the country of his past— someday, when it is safe in Iraq for an American and an Iraqi to smell flowers together. Maybe he is thinking the same thing. Or maybe he’s afraid that he will never return and the jasmine will be gone, all blown to smithereens.” Eventually, the “three days in Damascus” of the book’s title came to an end, and Kim and Omar tearfully parted ways. Needless to say, the new couple faced enormous impediments in their commitment to making a future together— including but not limited to a physical distance of 5,655 miles, wobbly internet connections, prohibitively expensive long distance phone calls, anxiety, and an endearingly frustrating language barrier. The reader wonders whether or not Kim and Omar’s relationship will survive those challenges… (I won’t give away the conclusion!)
However, their was something else happening to the author in the Middle East besides romance. In Three Days in Damascus, Schultz expertly weaves the story of passion between two very different people with a much grander love story. Over candidly provocative conversations, many tears, and seemingly endless cups of tea shared with the refugees, the author developed an unwavering affinity for the people and culture she traveled so far to learn about. It was a devotion that would last to this day: “These Iraqis with their devastated lives and generous hearts really burrowed into mine… eight years later, there they stay”. She’s not being dramatic with her choice of the words “devastated lives”. Through countless heartbreaking (and often difficult to read) true stories, the reader learns far more about the “refugee crisis” than any of the tiny soundbites on internet news feeds or TV have ever given us about Iraq or Syria in 2017. Schultz’ memoir is an eye-opening profile of a largely forgotten and appallingly misunderstood population. She points out that many of the refugees were well-off, middle class Iraqis— many of whom were also professionals. They fled the country with their savings, but now live in impoverishment— many having lost the money to terrorists or having burned through it to survive in a new setting with limited economic opportunities. In a sad irony, much of that limitation was due to their maligned status as refugees. Schultz notes, for example, that many families brought their TV sets to their new “homes”… but that the TV’s usually became mere pieces of furniture, since there was usually no electricity. Underneath the political circumstances that brought them into their situation, Schultz learned that they were just trying to live their lives, often under nearly impossible circumstances. When I say “live their lives”, the emphasis is on “live” in the most literal sense. Even more heart-tugging than their stories of poverty and war terror is their loss of hope. As Kim tells me,“For a lot of the refugees, it’s not even about THEIR lives anymore. They’ve given up on their lives. Now, they just want to give their kids a shot.” Today, Kim Schultz is living in Chicago. She’s touring with her book, as well as recording the audio version of Three Days in Damascus, which will be ready in time for Christmas. She’s also bringing her one-woman show play No Place Like Home— a play about her love affair with Omar which preceded the book— to audiences. Schultz spoke to me about Three Days, how her experiences changed her life, and what all of us can do to make a difference.
JR: Hi, Kim. Thanks for speaking with me! So, how did your trip to the Middle East first come about?
KS: It was really random how that whole series of events happened— and how my life changed. I was “just” an actor and a teacher, doing my solo shows at the time. I had done an off-Broadway show called The F-Trip. It was a show about my father dying, a trip to Israel, and falling in love with a con man. Obviously, it was a very serious subject matter, but I did it with a comedic touch— because that’s my style. Some people from Intersections International had seen the show. That’s kind of how it happened. They approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in traveling to the Middle East and meeting with Iraqi refugees. They were interested in how I handled these very serious, horrible subjects— death, heartbreak, religion, search, and all that kind of stuff— with a comedic touch. They were wondering if I could manage the same thing with refugees. I said yes right away, and then they told me that they were also talking with a B-list female Hollywood celebrity that they may be bringing along. I said, “Sure, no worries!” but thought, “Ugh! It’s not gonna happen!” They apparently met with her, and it didn’t work out. They then asked me, “Listen: If you’re not offended, would you still be interested?” I answered, “Not offended. Interested. Let’s go!”
JR: (Laughs) At that point, was the idea of going to the Middle East still sort of “pie in the sky”? Was it out of your comfort zone?
KS: Oh yeah! I had never done anything like this. I’d been to Israel, but this trip was to interview Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. As I said in the book, I had to Google “Iraqi refugee crisis” because I had no idea. This was in 2009— long before the recent Syrian refugee crisis had entered our consciousness. I didn’t know anything, and the press certainly was not helping us to learn. So… I Googled it, and I cried, and I ended up going on this life-changing trip. I had TV pilots, I was writing, and I had other projects I was doing… and I thought, “Well, I’ll just go on this little trip to the Middle East, and then I’ll come back and do all that.” I never picked up any of those projects ever again. My life was changed!
JR: Wow! So, in the beginning of Three Days in Damascus, Deborah Oster Pannell wrote an introduction in which she summarizes the historical events that led to the refugee crisis in post-war Iraq. Most of us, including myself, didn’t know that the United States may have helped bring down a dictator, but that we also opened the door to a whole new collection of serious problems in their country, such as tribal warfare.
KS: We went in largely uninformed and uneducated, and without proper guidance. Not to over-generalize, but many of the Iraqi people I spoke with were very grateful at first, thinking that America was going to come in and help. What they didn’t know was that America was very ill-prepared. They toppled this dictator— but in the vacuum that was created, now everyone was suddenly vying for power. We did nothing as a country to stop the looting and the loss of the museums, the libraries, the artifacts, the history… all of that. This was all the beginnings of ISIS.
JR: As Americans, did we learn anything from that experience, especially when it comes to how we are handling the newer refugee crisis in Syria today?
KS: To some degree, maybe we learned, because with Obama we were more hesitant to go into Syria. But for the most part, no I don’t think we haven’t learned. We always look out for our own interests, and that’s the problem. It’s always about oil and money, right?
JR: Sadly, yes…
KS: It was never about helping the Iraqi people. I’m no expert and I’m no scholar, certainly. I only know what I know from my research, and from my time spent there, and from the conversations that I’ve had. Have we learned anything as Americans as a whole? I don’t know. We elected Trump! The way he treats refugees… I mean, the refugees who come into the United States are the most vetted population. People say, “Oh, they’re terrorists, there’s no screening…” Of course there is. There are years of tests and meetings and interviews and eyeball scans and everything they go through. So, again, have we learned anything? I don’t know. On my more pessimistic days, I would say “No”. We’re fighting so much right now and there’s so much in our world going on. I don’t think that there’s an easy answer, but I do think that it comes from education, and from talking to people, and from having good sources… which we just didn’t utilize in Iraq. But the Syrians who I’ve talked with say that Obama should have done something when his line was crossed, or when the gas was used. They ask, “Why didn’t you come and help?”Should we have? I don’t know…
JR: In your book, you write very vividly and openly about falling in love with one man, but also about your love for the Iraqi people as a whole as well. Do you still have those same feelings for the Iraqi people in 2017… or has that sort of fallen into the past now?
KS: No, not at all! In fact, it’s still very much a part of my life. I volunteer with several refugee organizations in Chicago. I’m a mentor in their women’s mentorship program, which is between refugee and American women. I am using my book and my play as efficacy tools. I have my book tour. I continue to advocate. Like I said before, my life has changed: certainly because of Omar, but I can’t give Omar all the credit. I fell in love with the people I met. I continue to advocate in whatever way, shape, or form that I can here in the States: with my voice, with my time, with my money, with my art…
JR: That’s great to hear. So, how has the reaction to Three Days in Damascus been so far?
KS: It’s been great. They say that things go in seven year cycles… and when Three Dayscame out, it was the end of that seven year cycle! I thought, “OK, here we are. I’m gonna publish this damn book, and Hillary Clinton will be elected, and I’m gonna move on from refugees, and I’m gonna move on to my next project… and that’s that!” And then, Trump. All that anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment. I thought, “Arrrghhhh! Here we go!” It re-opened my sense of urgency and my need to use this. So yeah, it’s been good: the talk-backs, the tour… Every city has had a different feel, and every talk-back has had a different feel, and it’s been really specific. There were really great conversations and really great awakenings. People were saying things like, “I just didn’t know this!” or “What can I do?” I’m just so grateful every time I get to share the stories, because as I say in the book, it selfishly lightens the weight on me!
JR: When we first met, you were living in New York City. You’re now living in Chicago. What was it like to leave New York?
KS: Chicago is a lot like New York, I would say. I miss New York, certainly… but it was also at the end of all of this. I had been going to Mexico for a couple of years, doing the artists’ residencies down there, and I’d been touring with No Place Like Home quite a bit… so I was kind of removed from New York day-to-day life. I was actually debating moving to Mexico and living there full time. When I decided not to do that, I decided that I had to either re-invent and re-commit to New York, or that it was time to leave. I have family in Chicago, and I had gotten some acting jobs here, and so the universe kind of said, “OK, move here!” So, I jumped on it. It’s been about three and a half years now. The first couple of years, it was tough. I missed New York. There’s no place like New York City!
KS: But like I said before, Chicago is a lot like New York… with the water right there. Lake Michigan! But also, it felt like I needed a shift, personally, at the end of all of this. I’m a totally different person than I was eight years ago, as we all are. But this whole refugee business has changed the trajectory of my life. So, it made sense that a physical shift in locale had to happen as well!
JR: On a final note: What can the average person who wants to understand the situation— and to possibly help as well— do on a day-to-day basis to make a difference?
KS: People can give money, of course. There are so many good orgs, big and small. They can give time: volunteer with a resettlement agency, or mentor, or teach English. But most of all, they can change the dialogue around refugees and Islam. Correct ignorance when you hear it. Speak truth. Clarify people’s fears as unwarranted. Basically, be a voice of sanity in this insane world. There’s so much generalization out there, as well as a lot of wrong information as well. Take the hijab, for example. I’ve had conversations with Muslim women friends, and there’s such false information out there about the hijab. Are some women oppressed by it? Certainly, some women in some parts of the world are. Are all? No! You can’t make the assumption that every woman who wears a hijab is oppressed by it. It’s always about education. And isn’t that true with hate as well? You can always hate what you don’t know. If you don’t know a refugee, of course you’re gonna be afraid of a refugee, because you’re given FOX News or you’re given all this false information. What I think we can use to counter every horrific problem we have in our world today is to get to know somebody. Sit down and have a cup of tea with them… and then you go, “Oh, Muslims aren’t bad” or “(Fill in the blank, whatever it is)… aren’t bad”… instead of the unknown and the fear!
JR: How true! Thanks for speaking with me, Kim!
I’d like to add that there’s still another way to make a difference. Read Kim Schultz book Three Days in Damascus. It certainly made a difference in the life this writer!
Visit www.3DaysinDamascus.com for more information!