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Mohammed Amer's new series explores the tragedy and comedy in the refugee experience

Palestinian American comedian Mohammed Amer stars in <em>Mo</em>, a new Netflix series out Wednesday.
Netflix © 2022
Palestinian American comedian Mohammed Amer stars in Mo, a new Netflix series out Wednesday.

It's a story comedian Mohammed Amer says he's had in his head for two decades and started writing nine years ago. Now, on Wednesday, Mo will be out on Netflix.

Co-created by Amer and Ramy Youssef, the show is a semi-autobiographical look at the trauma of displacement. Amer's family was forced to leave home and travel to another part of Palestine in the 1940s. They were displaced again to Kuwait and then again in the 1990s during the Gulf War. He and his family ended up in a suburb of Houston as refugees.

"It speaks to a second generation statelessness, right? And the ripple effect that happens from being stateless," he told Morning Edition.

Amer finds the comedy and tragedy in his family's tale. He explores the way the wounds that come from being forced from your homeland by war and occupation are passed down, as his character navigates a 20-year journey through the asylum process in the U.S.

"Once you're waiting for your asylum to be granted, you're just out there, no home on paper," he said. "All a person like that wants is to feel like he belongs, and feel like they're seen, and feel like they're equal to their other human counterparts."

While his character is in immigration limbo, he can't legally work. He has no papers. So he resorts to working under the table and hawking knock-off luxury goods to support his family. Then he ends up getting addicted to codeine after he has to be treated for a gunshot wound at a tattoo parlor because he doesn't have health insurance.

Amer, who stars in the show, is quick to point out the codeine addiction is not real. There are many dramatic flourishes of this story based on his life for comedic or storytelling purposes.

The show looks at what can be the American experience: gun violence, a broken healthcare system, and a broken immigration system that puts people in the position of having to skirt the law.

"It's tragic. It's heartbreaking. It almost forces you to do illegal things while you're trying to be an upstanding citizen," he said.

The backdrop of this dramedy is the Houston suburb where Amer grew up.

"Alief is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America, 80 languages are spoken there," he said.

Houston was the only place Amer wanted to film this story. He wanted the show to look like an "urban western." The city is its own character with a rich mix of cultures and languages.

"Houston's incredible, and it's been an exporter of phenomenal artists for many years," he said. "There's something in the water there, for sure."

Teresa Ruiz plays Maria, Mo's girlfriend, in the show.
/ Netflix © 2022
Netflix © 2022
Teresa Ruiz plays Maria, Mo's girlfriend, in the show.

Mo showcases those Houston stars. Amer's character, Mo Najjar, has a best friend played by Nigerian American rapper Tobe Nwigwe. There are cameos by rappers Bun B as a Catholic priest, and Paul Wall as a courthouse security guard.

Amer's Palestinian, Houstonian, American and Muslim roots are all on full display. His character carries a little glass bottle of Palestinian olive oil around in his pocket. He's on a mission to stop the awful things being done to hummus in the U.S., like chocolate hummus — "a war crime," he calls it.

He switches from a Texas twang, to Spanish to Arabic seamlessly. He blasts hip hop from his car then brims with excitement over the traditional Zaffa (wedding procession) at a friend's nuptials, and cries at his father's grave as he recites a Muslim prayer.

It's heartbreaking, heartwarming, hilarious and tragic all at the same time.

While Amer's story is a singular experience of a Palestinian family in Houston, it also has a universal relatability.

Before he wrote the show, he talked to his mother about telling their family story. He asked her to tell him more about what his family went through, including the things she protected him from when he was a child. But first he explained why he wanted to portray that on screen for a global audience.

"'Millions of people are going to relate to this and it can empower them to better their lives. And also people who didn't go through it can relate to it and have empathy for it,'" he recounted telling his mother. "Once we had that conversation, she just opened up completely. It was just incredible to understand the strength of this woman, but also get some better understanding about my family as well, our experiences and what makes us who we are today."

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Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.