"A week after the performance, she was an international celebrity," says Ken. "You could see her becoming a symbol. That's good or bad, depending on how she handles it. She is still figuring it out every day."

This past August, the Minor Disturbance slam team once again won the Brave New Voices Grand Slam, this time in Chicago. But Amal wasn't there. She could have been; at the Grand Slam in Denver this past April, she had the highest score after several rounds. But during her last round, she went over her time limit and then held up the flag of the Syrian opposition. Props aren't allowed at poetry slams, and she was disqualified.

Looking back, Amal says that she let herself be disqualified so that someone else could go to Brave New Voices. She was also worried that with her increasingly hectic travel schedule, she wouldn't have the time to commit to training with her teammates. But she says there was another, more complicated reason:

Amal Kassir at a candelight vigil at the State Capitol.
Anthony Camera
Amal Kassir at a candelight vigil at the State Capitol.
Ken Arkind, Amil Kassir’s mentor at Minor Disturbance.
Anthony Camera
Ken Arkind, Amil Kassir’s mentor at Minor Disturbance.

"I thought to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here with this poem about Syria and starving children?'" she says. "I like to win, sure, but there is war happening in my country. I am not really in a position to play this game right now."


On a recent rainy afternoon, Amal and her friend Kyle Sutherland, armed with signs, fliers and a megaphone, attend a rally in front of the State Capitol. The demonstration is in response to the news that the United States is considering military strikes on Syria because of President Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons, including an attack in late August that reportedly killed more than 1,400 people. The several dozen protesters in attendance don't think intervention is a good idea. "Hey-hey, ho-ho, bombing Syria has got to go!" a woman chants into a megaphone. As rush-hour traffic speeds by on Lincoln, a young boy holds up a sign reading, "Peace is a human right." An older man holds aloft a sign that reads, "Wall Street is War Street," near a woman holding a placard declaring, "Israel, get the fuck out of my government!"

Many of those in attendance look like the sort who'd attend poetry slams at the Mercury Cafe. And Amal spots a couple of friends from an activist group with which she's involved. But Amal and Kyle aren't here to support the protest. They're here to oppose it.

In spring 2011, when the Syrian army first began clashing with Syrian protesters who'd been inspired by uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Amal wasn't all that concerned. "I don't think much is going to happen in Syria," she told one of her high-school teachers. "Bashar seems nice. He was educated in Europe."

But news reports began trickling in suggesting that she was wrong. Soldiers were firing on civilians, security forces were kidnapping and torturing activists. Protests spread, and soon the demonstrations erupted into an all-out civil war.

A bombing obliterated the private school Amal had attended outside Damascus. At her grandparents' farm, soldiers cut down all the trees as punishment because people in Hamouriyah were believed to support the opposition. One of her uncles had to flee the country when it was discovered that he was helping the rebels, buying up buildings around the country to store the bodies of those killed in the fighting, since funerals had become a target of military attacks. Two other uncles were arrested. One was released months later, covered with bruises and having lost 100 pounds. The other remains in prison...as far as anyone knows. Soon Amal's Syrian family members were fleeing to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. "They are spread across five countries now," says Amal.

They were the lucky ones. "Twelve of my relatives have been lost," Mahmoud says. "From bombings, from torture, from snipers. Some were killed at checkpoints." His uncle was among those who went to help others when the chemical rockets landed in a Damascus suburb in late August; he never made it back. Then there was Mahmoud's father, Sa'ed — Amal's grandfather. His health had been deteriorating for years, but the turmoil seemed to hasten his decline. The war prevented most of his family from seeing him before he died in February. "That was the first time I saw my father cry," says Amal.

As the world cheered on the revolutions in Egypt and Syria, as NATO intervention helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Amal waited for help to arrive for the Syrian people. But it didn't come. "Where is the Arab League?" asks Amal. "Where is Saudi Arabia? Where are these big, huge Gulf countries?" Without international support, the opposition in Syria became increasingly fractured, and extremist groups aligned themselves with some of the rebels — making intervention on their behalf all the more difficult.

So Amal decided to take matters into her own hands, with the help of her friend Kyle. Kyle, now 21, was on the slam team in 2010; shortly before he met Amal, he converted to Islam. The two met through Minor Disturbance and quickly became close. "We hit it off right off the bat," says Kyle. In addition to facilitating poetry workshops and open mics, Kyle also works at Damascus Grill. In their free time, he and Amal are developing an organization they call Project More Than Metaphors. The goal is to deliver aid to Syrian refugees, many of whom have fled to overcrowded camps in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. The two are organizing poetry-themed fundraising events in Denver and beyond, as well as developing pen-pal programs to connect youth in this country with those in the camps. "The idea is to use our poetry, use our words, to do something more than just symbolic deeds," says Amal.

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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


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