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Ahmad Joudeh: the ballet dancer who faced down Al Qaeda to become the voice of stateless refugees

Ahmad Joudeh filming the dance for the World Economic Forum concert at Davos 2022.

Ahmad Joudeh filming the dance for the World Economic Forum concert at Davos 2022. Image: Stéphanie Nassenstein

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Ahmad Joudeh overcame statelessness, war and prejudice to become an internationally renowned ballet dancer.
  • He performed for the World Economic Forum's concert in Davos 2022.
  • Hear the podcast and subscribe to Radio Davos.

A highpoint of every World Economic Forum Annual Meeting is the official concert which this year was performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. While the musicians played a Catalan folk tune about freedom called The Song of the Birds, projected onto a huge screen behind them was a solo dance, performed by Ahmad Joudeh.

On this episode of the Radio Davos podcast we hear from Joudeh about his upbringing in a refugee camp in Syria, his battle against violence and prejudice, and how he now gives voice to the millions of people who, like him, were born stateless.

Watch the concert Our Shared Humanity at Davos 2022. Ahmad Joudeh appears from minute 38

Interview transcript:

Ahmad Joudeh: I found myself and the Yarmouk camp in Syria - that's where I was born and where I had my childhood. It was an incredible childhood. I loved my life. I was surrounded with my family. I was loved. I was appreciated. And the world to me was that camp. Until I decided to become a dancer. Everything turned around.

Joseph Fowler: Certain organisations and groups threatened to kill you if you danced. Can you talk about the forces working against your dancing? Why it was forbidden and how this was enforced?

Ahmad Joudeh: Well, suddenly, after a little while that we lost our house in the Yarmouk camp and we had to leave the Yarmouk camp. I had a call from a friend from Lebanon, and he said, "Did you check your Facebook?" I'm like, "No." So I went to check my Facebook and then I found photos of me with written 'wanted' and some off comments like "how could he survive our knives," and this kind of stuff. I didn't take it that serious. But I made some screenshots and kept it in case something happens - it was a war and all of this situation.

Two days after, I received a call from an anonymous number, somebody called me and he was like, "Yeah, we want to cut your head. We will get your mom. We will get your sister," and these kind of words. I'm like, "Who are you? Who are you?" And then I started to receive on my Facebook Messenger as well, messages, and I went to the police and I was like, "Hey, I'm receiving threats. This is something serious." And they're like, "Yeah, get away from here. We have something more important to take care of." Well, I understand - the country was falling apart.

So this is how it started. And it kept going until I just stopped taking those calls. Suddenly one of those calls was with the ministry of the media in Syria, they called me and there was a woman on the phone. I was like, "Oh, a woman. Okay. Hello? Who are you?" And then she said, "I'm from the ministry of the media in Syria, and there is somebody who sent you a friend request on Facebook you didn't accept. I was like, "How do you know this?: She's like, "There is someone who wants to work with you, which is Roberto Bolle." So basically those anonymous calls were like, to bring me death. And then suddenly a call of them was to bring me life.

Joseph Fowler: As a kid in the Al Yarmouk camp, do you think that dancing, in a way, saved your life?

Ahmad Joudeh: Well, when I lived in the Yarmouk camp, I always hid the fact that I am a dancer because in a camp for stateless refugees, education was not enough to educate people or to make them aware of what is ballet. And ballet for a man there - something to be ashamed of. Because ballet for them is just the tutu and the point shoes for the woman and they don't even think how difficult and how much power the man needs to be a ballet dancer.

So I kept it for myself. And of course my father, he is the main reason why I kept it for myself. Because my father is an artist. He's a musician and he's a painter. He makes art. And he was strongly against me being a ballet dancer. So if this person would not understand me, how can the camp understand me? So I kept it away from other people until I was on TV and then people found out and I was shamed for it.

Unfortunately, the war started, and we lost our house in a bomb, so we had to leave the camp. To me it always was, "I am the reason. I am the reason." I am the reason my father and mother separated - because I am a dancer. She is still, and used to be, the main support for me, my mom. And that caused her to get divorced and that made my brother and sister as well be like, "Yes, you're the reason for our family to be broken."

And that as well put pressure on me of making it up for them. So I had to work with my mom to rent a place to bring up my sister and my brother to help them study and to help them get to a nice and good and successful life. Which they have a great life now. I'm so proud of them. My brother is a composer and a painter as well. He's a teacher of fine art in Syria. And my sister, she's an Islamic world champion for athletics. So, yeah, I'm proud of them. They still live in Damascus with my mom.

How can you be an artist and you don't accept ballet? To me, dance is making music with your own body - the most precious instrument that a person can have.

Ahmad Joudeh

Joseph Fowler: So you come from an artistic family.

Ahmad Joudeh: Yes. I come from an artistic family. Unfortunately, my father not educated enough artistically to accept ballet, and this is the one that never healed. We got together and we met, and we made up for all of this internal war between me and him. We are like friends, but we never understand each other. I cannot understand him. How can you be an artist and you don't accept ballet? Or how can you be an artist, you love music and you don't love dance? To me, dance is making music with your own body - the most precious instrument that a person can have. So I don't understand him, to be honest.

Joseph Fowler: You have a tattoo. Can you tell us a little bit about that, when you got it and what it says and what it means to you?

Ahmad Joudeh: My tattoo is my life. It is "dance or die". And the first time I said "dance or die" was not for the war. It was for my father when he was beating me. He was beating me saying, "Study or dance, you know, like dance or die, because he tried everything you can imagine to stop me from dancing. He tried to injure me, and he tried to stop me from going to school because he learnt that I wanted to study in the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts, the dance department where I graduated from, which is a huge success for me.

So he tried all of this to stop me and to me it started with him - it's dance or die. And the war as well brought extremists to Syria, to our country. And instead of just hiding it in the camp, I started to hide it everywhere. Where I couldn't hide it anymore because I was on TV and on posters in theatres. I was a soloist in another dance theatre and my photos everywhere and my videos as well. And I was teaching kids in SOS Children villages dancing. So I was quite well known. And that made me a target for extremists, especially like ISIS or al-Qaida in Syria. I faced them face-to-face - let's say, gun-to-face. And yes, I had a gun in my head two, three times. And I survived it.

Joseph Fowler: And you survived. And you came to Europe. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to Europe, that journey?

Ahmad Joudeh: Remaining who I am and fighting for who I am as an artist during this war and during all the darkness and death and everything happening around me, it just didn't destroy what is within me. So I was still carrying on my training. And even after I graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, I was supposed to go to the Army. And then I had only three months to prepare papers and to say goodbye to the family and all of this.

So I went to the rooftop of the place where we were renting, and I made a dance video and I put it there on YouTube as the last dance I could do. And a Dutch journalist found this video, and he connected to me. And he came to Syria and he made a reportage about me. That took two months and I only had a month before I go to the army.

And when this reportage went online, it went viral and I started to receive tons of invitations everywhere. It sounded to me unreal until I had a call from Ted Brandsen [artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet] and he was basically calling me every day telling me, "We will make it happen." I'm like, "How would you make it happen? I have a travel document for stateless refugees. They cannot give me a visa on this. It's not a passport. I could travel to the Arab countries because they have agreements between each other, but to Europe, how could you give me a visa?" And he kept saying to me, "We will make it happen."

And then they give me a visa on a separate paper. And then I went to Amsterdam, invited by the Dutch National Ballet after the Dance for Peace Foundation was made. And there I got my, let's say, rebirth. I get to start my life again. Learn another language, learn everything around me. Get to know these people, this culture. All those bikes around me in Amsterdam!

Joseph Fowler: Your story is both very personal and at the same time it's universal as well. Can you talk a bit about displaced people and refugees?

Ahmad Joudeh: Yes, actually I realised that I am stateless and I don't have a country when I was in the Netherlands because they gave me a permit written nationality "Staatloos," which means stateless. And I was like, "What does that mean?" And they said, "You don't have a country." And I was like, "But I was born in Syria. I lived all my life in Syria." They're like, "Yeah, but you don't have Syrian nationality. You're not Syrian." I was like, I wanted to kill myself. Like, really? Who am I? You know?

And that's the moment when I realised that Palestinian refugees in Syria, they are not even Palestinians, they are not Syrian. Even though I have a Syrian mother, she doesn't have the right to give her kids her nationality. And that's most Arab countries' law till now. So. Yeah. I lived all my life thinking or I thought, I'm Syrian. I thought I'm both Syrian and Palestinian, but I realised I'm neither this or that. And I was I felt I was fooled because all the education in this school taught me how much I should love my country, which is Syria. But that doesn't define that Syria is not my country. Syria, the land, is my country. Syria, the people, are my family, all of them. So I am very much connected to Syria, the land and the people.

Then I started to look more into statelessness, and I found out that so many people, millions of people are stateless in the Arab countries. And I found out that we don't even have rights. I never thought of voting or something like that because I was never told that I have this kind of right. I was never told that everything my father could buy or own was in my mother's name, just because she's Syrian and he's stateless. He doesn't have the right to own something.

So I start looking into this and it hurt me so much that we were not told that, I found out about it. And then during the Syrian war people used to leave Syria, right? They want to leave to find a new future. Stateless people were not allowed to leave their cities. They were in a siege in the Yarmouk camp. People died of hunger. And that's all you can find on the media if you look for it.

So if you are a Syrian, you have a passport, you can just get a visa to Turkey and start your death journey, as they call it. But if you are stateless, you die where you are.

I want to be their voice. I go to my ballet class every day to improve myself and practise to become an elegant voice for them [the stateless].

Ahmad Joudeh

I am super lucky that I am a dancer and I got seen and liked and shared on social media. And that's why I got all this opportunities. But other people, they are still there and they are still struggling and dying and life is horrible in there. And I want to be their voice. I go to my ballet class every day to improve myself and practice to become an elegant voice for them. So the people with this privileged life would listen to me when I ask them just to think of them. Don't think of government or war or something. Think of those people who doesn't have a voice. Who doesn't have enough food to eat.

Joseph Fowler: It's interesting when you say you go to your daily dance training in order to create an elegant voice. It's beautifully put, and I understand that, and I can relate to that. And it's interesting what you're saying also about your perception of refugees because frequently we don't perceive them as anything but victims of circumstance. You're a perfect example of this, you know, you're an incredibly talented, bright, educated man, and yet you were born a refugee. You're successful in your efforts. You really are shining a different light on how we perceive refugees. So you are absolutely achieving that.

In September 2021, you published your first book. I'm saying first because I'm hoping there's going to be more. It was called Dance or Die. So it has the same name as your is your tattoo. And it's been called heartbreaking and life affirming in equal measure. Can you tell me a little bit about how the book came about?

Dance or Die
Joudeh's memoire

Ahmad Joudeh: Well, 'dance or die', it started, as I told you, since I was young, 17 years old in the camp still. It became my motto of life. And it became my life value. I know it's a harsh thing to say, 'dance or die'. I didn't have another choice. And that's true. That's the truth. But my life, it is about dance or die even now, like it is. Who I am and my life story. I believe it's a mission for me. It's not about me only. It's a story for millions of people. It's a story for every stateless person who had to struggle and suffer all of this just because he was born somewhere. And it's a story of every refugee that's been referred to as 'them' or 'the others' or 'the refugees' or something. You could be a refugee whoever is looking at this video. You could be a refugee tomorrow, hopefully not with a war or anything else. But it could be an earthquake. It could be anything else that can make you a refugee.

I was born as a refugee. I have never asked for refuge to any country or in any country.

Ahmad Joudeh

I was born as a refugee. I have never asked for refuge to any country or in any country. I was taken to the Netherlands with a student visa. But I was born as a refugee. Well, we need to discuss this, maybe. So this story has a value and this value, I wanted it to be there, that anyone can just take it, dive into it, read it, see my dancing words. And see how I perceived this war from the kid me into the dancer me into the one who I am today. So 'dance or die' is more than who I am. It's more than me. I am just a passenger. And I believe this story has to be told, has to be given to the people who need it to realise how privileged they are, how lucky they are to have their life here in the Western world, and to become a voice for every stateless person, and where I came from. That's why Dance or Die's there.

Joseph Fowler: And as well as being an incredibly successful author, you've also created a foundation which is also called Dance or Die, the Dance or Die Foundation, for which you are the artistic director. Can you tell me a little bit about the mission of the foundation and the work that the foundation does?

Ahmad Joudeh: Yes, actually, as you can see, I am very connected and very busy with charity work. So I needed some support to my artistic work. When I work with a choreographer or when I want to pay my ballet classes or when I want to pay a studio rent or this kind of stuff, I need support for that. I cannot do it myself by myself. So I couldn't do anything by myself. Actually, without all the people supporting me, I would not achieve what I achieved today or what we achieved today together. So that is what Dance or Die Foundation for, is to support my artistic projects. Hopefully, it's still new, it's just out there. And I hope it will be a great support for the mission of telling my story and being a voice for stateless people and for kids.

Joseph Fowler: You serve as a high profile supporter of the UN refugee agency and you're also an international friend for SOS Children's Villages International Can you tell me a little bit about your current work fighting for human rights of children and refugees?

Ahmad Joudeh: Growing up as a kid in the refugee camp, now I understand what these kids feel like. So I visited so many villages for SOS Children's Villages in Europe and in Syria, Middle East, let's say. And I gave dance workshops for those kids. Besides giving lessons to the kids, I talk to them as well. And I connect to them and I make them dance together. I make them more connected to each other with dancing. And I teach them what dance taught me: how to present myself, how to be confident, and how to deal with all this. let's say, challenges during the daily life as SOS kid, refugee kid, stateless kid - these titles on those little kids, they don't understand why they are here. They don't understand. So it's nice to teach them something that they can value their bodies and value their being and force their power into this world. So with dancing, I teach them how to be, how to present themselves. And I did as well so many shows. charity events for SOS Children's Villages International, starting from Italy.

And for UNHCR, I just got this work with them and I'm very proud of it. I'm very happy to be chosen and recognised as a voice for refugees. Because let me tell you something, if I stayed in the Arab countries, I'm not sure I would be recognised as a person or as an artist respectful enough to be a voice for refugees. Because I lived there 26 years of my life and I was born there and they didn't even consider me as a citizen. They didn't even give me a nationality. I lived in the Netherlands three years and I got the nationality and I am considered as a Dutch artist and I am presented there this way. A minister came on TV to say, welcome to me. I presented the Netherlands in Eurovision, as presenting the diversity of the Netherlands as a Dutch artist. So this difference between where I spent my childhood in my life and where I'm just blossoming in here, why didn't I blossom in my own country? Because my own country is the Netherlands.


Joseph Fowler: If you were able to speak with your 8-year-old self now, having been on the journey you've been on, what would you tell him?

Ahmad Joudeh: I would tell the 8-year-old Ahmad to keep believing. And to open his eyes and close his ears. And just hang on - you're going to achieve what you're dreaming of.

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