A Texas Arab-American comic entertains troops
Comedian Mo Amer has visited more than 40 countries in the past 20 years, all of them without a passport. "I have what's called a refugee travel document," he says. "Inside, in huge letters, it says: 'This is not a US passport.' An immigration officer once looked at it, took it away for 20 minutes, came back and informed me that it was not a US passport."He is a Palestinian who found success in the US and clearly does not hate it. He is also popular with the troops he performs for in Iraq and Kuwait now. And, it appears he will finally get his US citizenship.
It's a joke, but not entirely. Amer's family, Palestinians living in Kuwait, fled when Saddam invaded in 1990. At nine years old, he made a nerve-wracking escape with his mother and sister, and wound up in Houston, Texas, where he has lived – and awaited US citizenship – ever since. In the meantime, travelling with only a refugee travel document has rendered him an expert on immigration rules. "I know immigration law like you would not believe. I can write a dissertation on it."
Arriving as a refugee in the US was a far cry from growing up in a well-off family. His father, a telecoms engineer, put him through private school where he learned English and wore a bow tie, while his older brothers studied overseas. Their millions were rendered worthless overnight when Saddam devalued the dinar. As the Iraqi military stormed the neighbourhood and violence broke out on the streets, the family decided to flee. Escaping with what little money they had hidden beneath their clothing, Amer and his mother and sister got out via Baghdad, where they narrowly avoided being searched, before crossing through Jordan and Paris to get to Texas.
Travelling from Kuwait to Houston proved a big jump for a small boy. Once he had begun to settle, at the age of 14 he was hit with the death of his father, a gaping hole that he began to fill with comedy.
"I didn't care any more," he says. "My father had only been able to join us two years after we left Kuwait and then I lost him. I gave up on everything, started to fail at school until one of the teachers suggested I perform. Then I saw Bill Cosby doing a show, and that was it. I knew I wanted to be a comedian."
Amer earned his comedy stripes by playing backwater clubs, and by the age of 19 he was being flown out to play to US troops stationed abroad. "It was mindblowing. Here I was, a Palestinian and a refugee, yet I was playing to US troops in Europe. By now, my mother knew that there was no hope of me picking a 'real' job."
Obviously now more at ease with his identity, Amer's more recent material sees him grappling with the day-to-day issues of being an Arab-American. One joke describes the unexpected problems he faced when deciding whether to call out his young nephew's name after losing him in the aisles of Wal-Mart. "I can't shout out Osama," he laughs. "Do you know how many people in Wal-Mart hunt?"