PATERSON, NJ – For Amel May Khalil, becoming an actress wasn’t part of her plans.
But, in February 2013 when her mother, May, passed away after spending two-and-a-half weeks in a coma, the Paterson native said it “changed everything.”
“I decided I would value time differently,” the 31-year-old Palestinian Arab American said. “When you spend 17 days straight just watching life fade, it really gives you perspective. So, I started interviewing people about what it took to follow their dreams – what sacrifices do they make, how do they pay the bills, how do they face adversity.”
She turned her interviews into a video blog called “Self Made” and the project transformed Khalil into an aspiring artist.
Khalil credits it as her “start to loving hosting, the camera, stepping into people’s shoes, producing and more.” By February 2015, she was looking into acting boot camps and learning the ropes of acting.
That fall, she quit her full-time job as a project coordinator at NYU Langone Health to go all in on her dream.
In December, she was cast as the lead in “There is a Field,” a touring production about police brutality in Palestine, an experience Khalil described as “eye opening” because it showed her “how art can be used as a real form of social activism.”
From there, she took on several acting jobs, including television appearances on “Tommy,” “FBI,” and “Madam Secretary” on CBS, and “New Amsterdam” on NBC. Khalil also had roles on stage, in “Abrahams Daughters” and the “2016 Vagina Monologues,” on a web series “Triangle” and in film shorts “El Mundo Mas Alla” and Shift.”
Her most recent project – a pilot for a new comedy series – is a role that hits home for Khalil, who is an advocate for influencing a positive perception of Arab Americans in the media.
“Generation Por que?,” which debuted this month at a virtual indie film festival, follows the story of Jackie Perez, a first-generation woman chasing her acting dreams in New York City while dealing with her Cuban parents, who voted for Trump and live in New Jersey.
Khalil plays Perez’s misunderstood roommate, who is also an aspiring actress and stunt fighter.
“The best thing about the role is that it was written to portray a young, stunt fighting actress with boy problems, who also happens to be a devout Muslim and Arab American. More often than not, the roles that come my way are entrenched in the Arab identity or Muslim identity. But when I was growing up, I was just an American who also was all of these other identities.”
“It is not my only one. I am a woman, from Paterson, who is a Muslim Palestinian Arab American Artist, Creator, Sister, Daughter, Friend and more. ‘Generation Por que?’ lets the character be all of her identity and not just focus on the one,” she said.
The pilot is also one of six contenders in the TV Comedy/Dramedy Pilot category for HBO’s 2020 Women in Comedy Festival.
“I am a human first. I empathize greatly with other people – joy, happiness, pain, everything,” Khalil said. “It’s what I love about acting, when you commit yourself, you can really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. No judgement – just see the world from their eyes. And, when you can do that on stage, the audience feels your pain or joy, as well, and the energy in the room just changes. It is really one of the most amazing feelings to be in touch with the audience and your fellow actors all at the same time, all while giving respect to the journey of the character you are portraying.”
Connecting with the community – and giving a voice to those who cannot speak - has always been important to Khalil.
While building her resume as an actress, Khalil began volunteering at Wafa House, a Passaic County-based non-profit that provides help for those dealing with domestic violence.
Khalil said she was drawn to the organization “because they specialized in serving the Middle Eastern and Muslim community,” groups that make up a large percentage of her hometown’s population.
“When I was growing up in Paterson, I did not see many resources that catered to the needs of various people of color, like Arab Americans. A lot of the struggles my family went through were due to a lack of resources, language barriers and more,” she said. “My mom made it work anyway. I don’t know how, but she did. One of my goals is to make sure future parents don’t have to worry so much to find the resources and level the playing field.”
Since then, strides have been made to help improve the lives of minority communities and Khalil said she enjoys seeing Mayor Andre Sayegh’s updates about “new policies and programs to improve the lives of Patersonians.”
In 2019, Khalil teamed up with Sayegh and the Palestinian American Community Center for a press conference to announce the translation of voter registration information into Arabic to help remove the language barrier and encourage residents to vote.
Khalil is now a program manager at Wafa House, where she’s garnered over $700,000 in grants to help to resettle refugees who have recently arrived in the U.S., parents struggling to feed their families and women coming out of abusive relationships.
“I truly believe that the key to affecting real change is to use your voice proudly and pass on what you learned so that the next person doesn’t have to struggle so much,” Khalil said. “My most significant goals are to use whatever power, platform or influence I may have, to give back to others, especially in the places I called home.”
This year marked the first annual fundraiser in honor of her mother, which resulted in a $5,000 donation to a children’s cancer center in Palestine.
She’s also planning to launch her own non-profit that will be “centered around helping others evolve into their best selves by providing resources and a guide,” Khalil added.
One day she hopes to write and produce a network television show about what it’s like to grow up Arab American in Paterson.
“I want to give back to everything that made me - Paterson, my late mother’s legacy, Palestine and all of the struggles that people in these places face.”
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