"She climbed on top of that garbage, like a podium in front of an audience, raised her voice up high, and shouted for justice and liberty," remembers Melissa. "She's always had that in her, naturally."

What Amal didn't have was much knowledge of Syria, the place her father, Mahmoud, was from. He'd immigrated to the United States and landed in Omaha, where he met Melissa, who'd grown up in Iowa and converted to Islam as a teenager. Mahmoud was a student at the University of Colorado when he decided to drop out of school and push his mother's recipes. He and Melissa started cooking for mosques and catering small events, and Mahmoud also managed businesses, all the while saving money to start Damascus Grill. (He first opened Damascus Grill in south Denver, then moved it to Arvada, then Littleton; he opened a second restaurant on East Arapahoe Road two years ago.) He wanted to settle in Denver because he thought it would be a good place to raise his family, a place where the Muslim community was just beginning to develop.

But he also wanted his family to understand their Syrian heritage. And in June 2002, seven-year-old Amal and her mother and siblings moved to a suburb of Damascus, while Mahmoud remained in Colorado, managing the restaurant. "I wanted them to have the best of both cultures, both countries," he explains. According to Amal, the move was also inspired by growing anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11: the bomb threat at the private Islamic school she attended in Aurora, the brick that sailed through the restaurant's picture window, the names her mother was called for wearing a hijab in public.

Mahmoud Kassir was born in Syria but created a family in Colorado.
Anthony Camera
Mahmoud Kassir was born in Syria but created a family in Colorado.

The move to a hot, strange country where hardly anyone spoke English was hard on Amal and her siblings. "We wanted our ranch dressing and our Toys 'R' Us," she says. On her first day at the private school her parents sent her to, a teacher asked Amal which she liked better, America or Syria. When Amal replied "America," the teacher slapped her face.

But Amal grew to love Syria — the thousand-year-old mosques and Crusade castles they visited; the bustle of the street market where they purchased a pet duck for a nickel; the way the streets fell strangely, wonderfully quiet from sunup to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. But most of all, she loved her grandparents' farm in Hamouriyah, on the outskirts of Damascus. The family would spend their summers there, playing among the plum and pomegranate trees, eating kousa mahshi — zucchini stuffed with rice and meat that her grandmother had spent hours preparing.

"It was the most impactful time of my life," Amal says of her time in Syria, which left her nearly fluent in Arabic. She was happy to return to Colorado in 2005, but she brought with her a deep connection to Syria and that part of the world. That's why, in 2009, when she was fourteen and learned of the bloody Gaza War between Israel and Palestinian militants, she felt the need to express her thoughts in writing:

Leaders of the world,

A job well done

Power became this easy sensation

Slowly life became this merchandise creation...

But you forgot something

The most important thing

You failed to mention the lesson of love

Instead you taught us how to shove

You never mentioned the meaning of life,

Instead you taught us how to fight.

She didn't see herself as a poet in the romantic sense of the word. "I don't have beautiful words and marvelously constructed sonnets," she explains. "Literally, all I write are things that come as a result of how I am feeling about injustice." She says the inspiration for her writing came as much from her older brother Yasser and their long, rambling political conversations as it did from rappers she liked, including Immortal Technique and Brother Ali.

Still, she believed she was on to something with her "Leaders of the World" poem, so she performed it at a 2011 poetry slam at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, where she was a student. She didn't win that night, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that she left the stage feeling like everything had changed. "It was like magic," she says. "I was always awkward and shy, but with that first poem, I was unleashed into a new person. I knew what I was good at. I needed the stage after that."

In March 2012, after she'd left Smoky Hill and had finished her high-school coursework through online classes, she took the stage at another poetry slam, this one at Overland High School. This time, she performed a poem she'd written in response to women who criticized her for choosing to wear a hijab, arguing that it was a form of oppression:

I really do apologize,

I know I'm not showing enough skin for ya

And I should know better than to think this body was mine,

I was sent down here with the Secret of Victoria

I have the freedom to succumb to your fashion magazines

And submit myself to your fantasies

But if I choose anything other than that,

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3 comments
patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I'd like to publish these comments in our print edition, ideally with the author's real name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

passingpirahna
passingpirahna

Amal Kassir is an incredible young woman. It is not easy going up against ignorance. Keep slamming young lady! 

 
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