How did you get involved in this project?
Rufus Jones got in touch three or four months before they started filming. Initially he asked me to do a bit of research for him and work with him on the scripts to check if everything that had to do with the asylum process and Sami’s process is as realistic as possible. I said yes and at that time I was looking to take a break from documentaries, so I asked Rufus if they needed a hand on set and he said they’d love to hire me as an advisor. That’s how it all happened.
What made you say yes to it?
Because it’s different and it’s going to reach a different audience than documentaries. When Rufus got in touch I watched the pilot and I thought it was incredible. That’s why I said yes.
As well as being a consultant and using your own experiences, you specifically helped Youssef out with his Damascus accent. What was that experience like? Have you done accent consultancy before?
No, it was the first time but because I used to be a teacher it was quite easy for me. I flagged it because when I watched the pilot Sami’s accent, despite not being that important because it’s in Arabic and ninety nine percent of the audience are going to be English speaking, sounded really Moroccan. So I helped the Arab speaking cast with their accents. It was enjoyable, and I thought it went really well. Youssef said that his Syrian dialect now is impeccable, and I believe so!
So this is a comedy. Were you worried comedy might trivialize what is a very serious subject?
I did, yes. I was a bit worried. It is a very sensitive subject, a really important global issue. But we’re not laughing at the way Rufus has creatively written the script, we’re not laughing at Sami, Sami’s journey or past or experience. I don’t think any sane person could laugh at someone who’s house has been destroyed, has had to do the journey and has been separated from his wife and child. We’re being entertained by the reality that any refugee goes through once they arrive here. I don’t think that’s worrying at all.
And we’re also laughing at the family.
You’ve been involved in factual programming documentaries. Was it odd to do some scripted? How different was it?
I was a bit anxious. Especially my first day on set. When someone works in drama and comedies they know everything, but I literally had no idea. In documentaries it’s basically me and the director and a fixer somewhere remote, filming someone’s story or journey. Here it was completely different. It was a bit overwhelming initially, but I thought everyone was supportive. Everyone was telling me, “This is how it works, this is how it happens.” Adam the producer was really supportive; he showed me around, told me about the technicality of everything and everyones role. David the director was incredible. We had a few incredible chats. I really enjoyed it.
As well as helping Rufus with various aspects of the script, you talked a lot with Youssef. What kind of things did he want to know?
Youssef asked me “How did the first night feel? How did the first shower feel? Especially if you’ve spent months being technically homeless. How did acts of kindness feel?” I helped Youssef understand the aspects of the journey that you embark on once you arrive to your destination. It’s overwhelming, it’s great, it’s exciting. I honestly think he nailed the character.
The show is about a Syrian refugee who is a teacher, which is what you were. Did it feel like fate to end up working on this show?
Yeah, I think so! I started giggling when I read the script initially and found out Sami is an English teacher who’s come from Damascus. It felt really close to home because that is my story technically. That’s exactly what happened to me. I ended up living with a British family in a spare room. I thought Rufus did really well writing about it.
Sami is so quick witted and funny in this and it seems to me how could, as someone who’s been through all this, how do you retain your wit? Is that possible?
It is possible. We were making jokes on the dinghy. It’s quite dark but I think that’s your brain defending itself by trying to retain a sense of normality or humanity. We made jokes in camps, we made jokes when we were being smuggled in Hungary and we made jokes when we got here. It was very healthy to laugh, to crack jokes and entertain yourself and the people around you.
What were your own experiences like, living with that family when you first came to London?
It was great. They helped me get back on my feet. I needed that support. I needed that family vibe. They were very protective. They wanted to support me as much as they can. I ended up living with them for almost a year. I wasn’t but eventually you feel uncomfortable because you’re imposing on someone’s generosity, so I had to get out. But we’re still friends, we still go out and have dinner together.
Did you say in a previous interview that the person you stayed with went on to set up a charity?
She didn’t set it up. She was one of the early people on board.
Is this Refugees at Home?
Refugees at Home, yeah. She saw the impact that it had on me because there was no way I could afford rent. I didn’t know anyone. They’ve helped so far thousands of people get back on their feet.
What charities do you work with?
Help Refugees, I’ve been their ambassador for a while. We raise money for them through our business, the pop-up restaurant. My partner works with RefuAid. I’ve worked with Calais Action.
What do you think of Rufus’ script?
I think it’s genius. Overall, I think the script is incredible. All the characters are great. The way Rufus has written the script it’s actually hilarious but what I loved about it were the moments where you watch the show and you’re laughing and it’s really funny, but suddenly there’s a sudden event that really hits you in your face. That is really smart, to take your audience on an emotional roller-coaster. It’s a sitcom, it’s a comedy but he wrote it so well that despite leaving the show feeling entertained you’re also thinking on the topic, because it’s quite good.
The show reveals a lot about British attitudes, both good and bad, to refugees. Have you encountered both?
I have encountered both. I think it’s completely normal to encounter both. I hate the attitude where you encounter an act of hostility and you go, “Ah!” Because let’s be honest, some Syrians are racist. Racism and the hostility to foreigners exists everywhere. And it did exist in our country when Iraqis came fleeing the Iraq war. So it’s completely normal to exist here. I think it’s our duty (for example it’s my duty as someone with a position, I do loads of talks, I’m involved with loads of charities) to counter that ignorance, to counter that attitude of being hostile to immigrants and refugees but not to take it personally and just do something about it.
You also have a cameo in the series. What was that like? Did you ask for it?
It was given to me! They said, “Do you want to play this character who checks if Sami is actually Syrian?” I remember when I had gone through that experience someone called me to check if I was Syrian. I found it quite funny because he was asking me specific things about Damascus and I overplayed it. I am from Damascus but for example he asked, “What did you eat?” I could have said shawarma or falafel, but I intentionally said, “Goat tongue salad.” It’s actually a smart move of the Home Office to check if everyone is from where they claim to be from. Playing that character was quite bizarre! I watched it and it feels a bit strange, but I thought it went well.
Was it therapeutic at all?
Yes, it was quite therapeutic. It’s not taking sides here. Given this whole journey and the refugee crisis and the story of people coming, it’s good to see from different angels. It’s a different perspective. Working on this show and playing this character, I just thought about it differently.
How is life in the UK for you now?
Brilliant! Can’t get any better.
You said in a previous interview that you grew up watching American TV – did you ever watch British TV?
It was only Top Gear that made it to Syria. Nothing else, unfortunately! Poor us. It was mainly American shows.