Soap Operas and Syrian Refugees

People in my life know that I love the same few things, which makes gift-giving really easy. Puppies. Martha Stewart. JCrew. And soap operas.

When I began watching soap operas more than ten years ago, they were an active part of the American imagination. More than ten aired each weekday across three major television networks. Today, however, there are sadly only four, struggling to maintain their shrinking, aging viewership. Most people apparently aren’t interested in characters who come back from the dead in numbers that rival their weddings.

Every day, however, at 1pm, I’m on the elliptical machine wondering if Kristen DiMera from Days of Our Lives will be back after falling out of a window in her Italian villa down a massive cliff into the Mediterranean. Every night, I make a bowl of popcorn and decompress with the daily episode of General Hospital, hoping to find out who is responsible for the latest mob murder.  

OK, as a daily soap opera viewer for over ten years, I can admit these plots are often far-fetched and rarely mirror social reality. Do you know anyone like Carly on ABC’s General Hospital who has been married four times to the same person — and probably three or four times to other men? How about the famous Luke on GH, who thought someone was impersonating him, only to find out he has a split personality because he accidently killed his father and mother when he was a teenager?

Yeah…

Neither do I.

That being said, soap operas make an impact in the world. Just ask sixteen-year-old Syrian refugee Nujeen Mustafa, who was recently made famous when she was featured on HBO’s Last Week with John Oliver. Nujeen is a sweet, lovable young woman who describes her experience with the most optimism. When asked how she learned to speak English, she said it was by watching her favorite television show, Days of Our Lives. She notes she was particularly upset that Days writers killed off her favorite character, EJ DiMera.  

Characters on soap operas are with viewers every day for literally years. Nujeen has journeyed, like so many other daytime viewers, with characters like EJ and their good (and more often evil) traits. The town of Salem, where Days takes place, becomes a second world – another home.

John Oliver wanted to do something for Nujeen. He brought together James Scott, the actor who played EJ, and Alison Sweeney, the actress who played his off-and-on love interest Samantha Brady, for a special scene. In the scene, EJ returns from the dead (in typical soap fashion) and arrives at Sami’s door. Sami is shocked to hear he is alive. After a long explanation including special laboratories in Germany orchestrated by his evil father Stefano, Sami says she “can’t imagine how horrible this was for you.”

EJ’s response: “Coming back from the dead, that’s not hard. You know what’s hard? Getting from Syria to Germany… I’ve read about some amazing people… Nujeen Mustafa…”

Alison Sweeney wrote about this tribute scene in her CNN Opinion piece, relaying her experience of speaking with Nujeen after Nujeen saw the scene Oliver produced for her. Sweeney writes:

She had no interest in dwelling on the negative. Nujeen wanted to squeal about Sami and EJ, she wanted to tell me about her favorite scenes and how devastated she was when EJ died. She brushed aside the idea that she learned to read and write on her own because she wasn’t allowed to go to school. She told me that I taught her to speak English. I apologized for all the curse words.”

Now, as Sweeney notes, Nujeen is using her English skills to help others in the refugee camps.

***

It’s safe to say we have never met anyone like EJ who has come back from the dead months after a fatal gunshot wound, yet the stories from soap operas can speak to people like Nujeen in desperate situations. Days of Our Lives is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year — fifty years of telling stories and offering us something to learn about our own lives.

And Nujeen, you might be in luck. On Friday’s episode, Sami found a handwritten letter from EJ with a key as a clue. Did Stefano take EJ to Germany to a secret laboratory? Could EJ DiMera be alive?

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

 

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