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For Syrian Actors, a Maddening Road to America

All but one of the nine members of the Syrian cast and crew, a lighting designer who lives as a refugee in Germany, received visas, defying the fears of Lincoln Center officials who had worried that the play would be a casualty of the Trump administration’s order to temporarily ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. The play, “While I Was Waiting,” begins a four-day run on Wednesday, as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival.

“I just want this festival to be finished,” said Mr. Alrefai on the eve of his departure from Beirut. But then he remembered he was going to New York City, and how much he was looking forward to it. “I’m sure when I get to New York,” he added, “I’m sure I’ll love it.”

The eight cast and crew members have been trickling in over the past few days, arriving at Kennedy International Airport. Lincoln Center officials have instructed them to carry a stack of identifying documents, permissions and invitations to satisfy inspectors at the airport — and to gird themselves for an ordeal.

“It was quite a drama, with a big crew working behind the scenes to secure the artists’ presence here,” said Lesley Rosenthal, general counsel for Lincoln Center. The organization often invites foreign artists, but never, she said, has it been so complicated.

Under most circumstances, obtaining a United States visa is arduous. In the case of these visiting artists, the ordeal involved proving that they had a good reason to enter the United States, that they were not a security threat and that they had no intention of staying in the country. The Trump administration’s travel ban — and the legal turmoil around it — has made the whole process all the more bewildering.

Written by Mohammad Al-Attar, “While I Was Waiting” follows a young man from Damascus, Syria, who is beaten unconscious at a Syrian security checkpoint. Hospitalized and in a coma, he watches his family working out their own grievances.

The actors say the play describes their country as they see it, not just as it is portrayed in the news media — as a war zone.


A scene from “While I Was Waiting.”

Didier Nadeau

This is why Mohamad Al Rashi, an actor who lives in France as a refugee with his wife and two daughters, subjected himself to the hassle of getting a United States visa. “To let people know: who are Syrians,” he explained. “They are normal people like everyone else on Earth.”

For Nanda Mohammad, another actor and a Syrian who moved to Egypt five years ago, it was all the more important to stage the play in the United States now, at a time when Arabs like her, she said, are “not welcome.”

“I’m not sure we will make any change, but it’s good to do it,” she said shortly after arriving in New York. And, she added, she was glad to see her cousin, who lives in New York and is reluctant to leave the United States for fear of not being able to get back in.

The play is based on a true story after a rebellion began in Damascus in 2011 and became the world’s deadliest war.

Shortly after the conflict started, Mr. Al Rashi, a television and theater actor who said he was known as a critic of the government, was detained by the Syrian security forces for a few days. After his release, he said, he received intimidating text messages. Someone scrawled “Muslim terrorist” on his car with a key. He found the message absurd. “I’m an actor,” he said. “I have no religion. I don’t believe in God.”

He left, trying his luck first in Lebanon and then settling in Marseilles, France. He does not think he will return to Syria anytime soon.

More than anything, he wants to see life in New York City. Walk the “very small streets,” is how he put it. Go to the small bars. Talk to the cabbies.

Mr. Abusaada, the director, says he wants to return to Syria when he can: It is not only his home, but also the source of his artistic material. “It’s so important to witness what’s happening there,” he said. “I should be inside.” He refused to say what could happen to him and the other members of the cast and crew once they return to Syria.

The trip is perhaps most delicate for Mr. Alrefai. He has toured across Europe and the Persian Gulf, and he has spent time in Beirut. But after each trip, he has returned home to Damascus. His parents wonder why. Because that’s where he wants to be, Mr. Alrefai tells them, despite everything.

The actors have never performed the play in Syria. Its dissident message would not be allowed.

Mr. Alrefai remembers the first time he performed the play in Belgium. On stage, he was saying things he could never say in Syria — “can’t even think in Syria,” he said — and wondered, briefly, whether a police officer would arrest him after the show. No one did.

He has deferred conscription into the Syrian Army by staying enrolled in a university. But now he is 28, and his time is running out. And so this time, when he flies back from New York to Lebanon, he is not sure he wants to cross the border to Syria. “You have to take a decision for your life,” he said.

He does not know where he will go. He knows only that he will not seek another visa to travel to the United States.

“I don’t think I’ll put myself through a situation like this again,” he said.

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