"Quantico" Star Yasmine Al Massri Grew Up a Palestinian Refugee — Now She's Helping Refugees All Around the Globe
"Quantico" actress Yasmine Al Massri's life has been extraordinary in every sense of the word. Over the past decade, Al Massri has dominated the indie film circuit, won numerous awards, and landed a starring role as identical twin sisters Nimah and Raina Amin on ABC's breakout drama. However, through all her successes, Al Massri has never forgotten her status as a Palestinian refugee, and she's channeled her own struggles into her work as staunch advocate for human rights.
Born in Lebanon to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother, Al Massri spent her formative years being recognized as a refugee in the country she knew as her home. Though the word "refugee" typically connotes migrant men, women, and children fleeing a war-torn nation, Al Massri's situation was different — her refugee status originated years before her birth. Following the creation of Israel as an independent state and the Arab-Israeli War, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee from their homes.
Al Massri's grandfather was one of the many Palestinians dispersed in the mid-twentieth century. While many scattered across Syria, Jordan, and the West Bank, he ultimately settled in Lebanon. Though Palestinians were granted asylum in Lebanon, they were denied Lebanese citizenship, as well as many basic human rights. Despite being the third generation living within the country's borders, neither Al Massri nor her family members were recognized as Lebanese citizens.
However, thanks to her family's sacrifices, she was able to attend school in Lebanon before moving to Paris at age 19. She graduated from the prestigious L'Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris in 2007, the same year she made her screen debut in the Lebanese LGBT-themed dramatic comedy Caramel, and has been on the rise ever since — and has used her star status to bring attention to those who need it most.
This Friday, she will be speaking at the United Nations' commemoration of World Humanitarian Day in effort to bring awareness to the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide in urgent need of humanitarian aid and to pressure politicians throughout the globe to enact change. Ahead of the event, Glamour caught up with Al Massri to talk about growing up as a Palestinian refugee, how modern technology can bring the global community closer together, what can be done to help those in need, and — of course — what fans can look forward to on season two of "Quantico."
Glamour: Friday is World Humanitarian Day, and I understand that you will be giving a speech at the United Nations. Tell me a little more about the One Humanity event and how you became involved with this cause.
Yasmine Al Massri: I am proud to be there because my participation is not about me, it is about giving a face to two people who will be [telling their stories] on stage. I’ll be translating the message of Syrian refugee Hala Kamil — a mother of four children — and giving a voice to the Syrian refugees from her nation. The other message I will be translating from Arabic to English is Mohammed Assaf, who is from Gaza. He is a Palestinian young man who dreamt of being a singer — you know in America you have American Idol? In the Arab world, we have a similar thing: Arab Idol — and worked hard to make it from Gaza to Lebanon where the competition takes place. He won the competition, and today he is one of the most famous voices in the Arab world and he is a United Nations ambassador. He will also be giving a message and talking about his story on stage. I’m going to be there to translate his story with great honor.
Glamour: With over 130 million people worldwide in urgent need of humanitarian assistance (and 60 million of them having been forced to flee their homes and countries), what do you think the international community needs to do to help them? More specifically, what can America do to help them?
YAM: I think what the international community can do today is use the technologies we did not have years ago. Years ago, it wasn’t easy to communicate, and it wasn’t easy to spread information. We were limited to the few media outlets that controlled viewership around the world and, by consequence, controlled the public opinion. But today, this platform is democratized. Any community around the world [can] help. That is the great thing about our time. I have met so many people this year — I cannot tell you how many people I have met — that were getting boxes full of toys, clothes, and food and sending them to Greece, to Turkey, to Jordan. The world is not separated anymore. We are not divided. It is very easy to find refugees [and help]. The information is available and it's everywhere. On the level of international organization, I would encourage more communication and more digitalized campaigns creating awareness — using multimedia to create more data about what’s going on. Not only how refugees are struggling, but how these people survive and how they continue to survive. Their nations are against them, everything is against them, but life continues and human beings are stronger than anything. This is where I confide my own story. I am a third-generation, born in a Palestinian refugee family in Lebanon. I am very, very blessed because I star in a TV show that is shown in 122 countries around the world. I have a voice and I am giving my voice to other people like me. I consider myself to be more privileged because I grew up having access to education. I grew up in a home. When we talk about refugees today, we need to talk about people who are homeless. This is why it is very important to share my voice with them and tell their stories. Every international organization that is out there working for this message has a great opportunity to communicate together, to work together, and to spread the message to a huge platform of people all around the world.
Glamour: Growing up as a Palestinian refugee, you and didn't become an official citizen of any country until you were an adult. What was it like for you growing up without a place you could truly call home?
YAM: It was really very painful, but I knew that if I went through this, I would be privileged in many ways. I knew that I should keep fighting because this is the family I grew up in. My grandfather was a Palestinian refugee who fled from Palestine in 1948. My father was born in Lebanon as a refugee because, in Lebanon, Palestinian refugees do not become Lebanese citizens. They are denied all major careers: You cannot become an engineer; you cannot become a doctor; you cannot be a lawyer; you cannot work in any public service position. You are denied social security. You are denied medical care. You are denied public school services. The only unit that helps refugees survive in Lebanon is the United Nations’ relief services. I was born in Lebanon as the third generation of a refugee family with the status of a refugee. My father, who did not go to school, was able to send me to school. My father had to start work when he was seven. He had to fix cars. I got an education — I have two brothers and one sister, and the five us went to school. The fact that he did that [and sacrificed] for us to go to school was big. [Palestinian] people who do not get an education are not able to have the chances we had — to grow up in a home and to sleep on a bed with a wall made of cement. Because Palestinian refugees are not allowed to own property, they cannot build with cemented walls. To build cemented walls meant they own property. Today, if you got to Lebanon and visit a Palestinian camp, you will not find a cement wall. You will find tents. I [was able to] get an education that allowed me to go very far and use my story as I am today to bring awareness to [these conditions]. When I arrived to France, I was 19 years old. I became a French citizen in 2006. The first day I arrived in [the country], I was given medical insurance because in France, every human being who needs medical services — whether Palestinian or not — has the right to it. That changed my life. In France, I had the right to become whoever I wanted. I could study whatever I wanted. I could do whatever job I wanted to do. I studied art. I became French. I enjoyed not only having human rights, I enjoyed having women's rights, which is also something in the Arab world that we have not yet taken care of — women's situations and women’s human rights. France was an amazing experience for me to become the woman that I am today. I moved to the United States five years ago. I got married, I had a child, and I became a mother. For me, becoming American is part of the successful journey that I'm blessed with. I feel like I’m becoming a citizen of the world. My responsibility is bigger, and the people that I care about are growing. I cannot advocate myself for one type of people because that’d be hypocritical. What I am learning from my experience as someone who grew up as a refugee, who became French, and then became American is that nationalities are something that we use to divide us. We are all one humanity. I want to dedicate my voice to [all people]. The theme of this World Humanitarian Day is "One Humanity" and I identify with it in every sense. War-torn nations try to separate us with corruptive politics. Whenever there is a human being in suffering anywhere around the world, our humanity always gets together to help. There is no negotiation of that.
Glamour: Considering the circumstances of your early life and where your life has brought, how do you feel when you hear politicians both in America and internationally speak critically of refugees and migrants who are simply trying to escape frightening conditions and make a better life for themselves and their families?
YAM: It makes me very sad, honestly. It puts tears in my eyes. I go to my husband and tell him I know it’s unfair. I’m so frustrated that I cannot do anything about this. I feel angry, and I feel frustrated because today I am so privileged to have a home, to have citizenship. I can go anywhere in the world. I don’t know how I can make a difference, and how I can make those people realize what it really means to be a refugee. In my opinion, those politicians are making decisions based on calculations related to [polling] numbers and strategic political agendas. But if they are to talk about refugees in a human way — far from how this would affect their [careers] or individual comforts — and if they, for a second, look at a mother, sitting on a road somewhere, holding her children, shivering with cold, and crying because they are hungry, I’m sure there is a part of their humanity that would shiver. The stories and what these refugees go through is interrupted. We haven’t developed how to make politicians see how big of a human tragedy this is and to see and realize that the suffering of the people that need help even if they are far from them. The communication machine needs to be more efficient. What the United Nations is doing, and what they are doing on Friday, is exactly what will help. The room will be full of politicians and high profile people who work in human rights who will have stories to tell. There are additional meetings in September and December between world leaders about how they can fulfill [these needs] and what the United States can do. I hope that the event on Friday will bring more attention to them and help those discussions go forward.
Glamour: Beyond Friday's event will you be working further with the U.N. and humanitarian efforts?
YAM: I don't know yet how. This is the first time I have done such a thing. For me, as Yasmine, I do this every day. I wake up in the morning, and if I can do something to make someone feel better, I do it. I do not wait to be invited; I think that’s the worst thing we can do. I make it my job to wake up every day and do one thing for one person and make them feel better. If the United Nations asks me to work with them, or if any other organization asks me to work with them, I will definitely [join them].
Glamour: To shift gears for a moment, what can fans expect from the next season of Quantico?
YAM: The last season ended with Alex having to make a decision if she’s going to be a part of the CIA. This season is focused on that. It’s about us — Alex, Nimah, Raina, Ryan, Shelby, and everyone else — fulfilling a secret mission that has to do with the CIA. There will be another catastrophe happening in New York. We will have to figure out who is behind it and save more lives than last season. This season, more lives will be at risk — very high profile people’s lives will be at risk. And your favorites from last year will be working together — or against each other. Again, the question of trust is still there. This year, there are more internationally-cast actors from South Africa, England, Mexico, and China. We’re trying to honor the [idea] that there is no language or face to who you should trust. It’s purely relying on a person’s actions and not where they come from. We’re going to push the limits more this year. You’re going to more confused and more eager till next Sunday comes. [Laughs.]
Glamour: And lastly, do you have one message you’d want to relay about the World Humanitarian Day? Is there one thing you hope people can take away?
YAM: I would invite people to go online because, again, I do really think that social media and technology are opening an amazing platform to make change around the world today. By improving things and public opinion and building communities that share beliefs and want to get together to make a change. I would be happy if people visit www.worldhumanitarianday.org and share more, read more, and get to know more about how we can make things better.
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• Watch Alicia Keys in This Powerful Film About Refugees
• Malala Yousafzai Seeks $1.4 Billion in Funding to Educate Syrian Refugees
Photo Credit: Glamour/BENJO ARWAS