Jasmine Abou-kassem was born in Saudi Arabia, spent part of her childhood in Syria and grew up in Overland Park.
She is fluent in Arabic as well as English and has an unusual professional skill set: model, actress, lawyer.
Hers is an impressive resume by any standard, but she views the world from a specific perspective: A Muslim in Middle America.
Predictably, she has sometimes been the object of Islamophobia. Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, for example, a man chased her as she was walking to her car.
“I was on Cherry Street,” she recalled. “I can’t remember what he said. He was about 10 feet away and he started yelling. But I caught the tail end: ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from?’ ”
Once she and her brother worked as cashiers in a Hen House. Her brother’s name is Mohamed and all employees wore name tags. One day a customer began berating him.
“I remember my brother stood there and was very quiet,” she recalled. “He just said, ‘I understand, I’m sorry you feel that way, and I’m sorry if you’ve lost anybody.’ ”
Mohamed’s assessment after the fact was simple: “I could tell he was afraid of something.”
Abou-kassem said her approach is usually conciliatory.
“I never really condemn them,” she said. “I try to (ask), ‘What’s the basis of your thought process?’ And often it comes back to fear.”
Abou-kassem said she practices the basic tenets of Islam but her interpretation isn’t orthodox. She’s a modern American woman, and her involvement in the arts has distanced her from the Muslim community to a degree.
Abou-kassem, 33, graduated from Shawnee Mission North High School, earned a bachelor of fine arts in dance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance in 2006 and in 2009, graduated from the UMKC School of Law. She began modeling when she was 19. Her acting has been restricted for the most part to commercials, small films and industrial training productions, although she has occasionally performed in community theater or independent efforts.
After law school she worked for the Polsinelli law firm and is now on staff in the Hallmark legal department.
Politicians, of course, like to use the fear of Islam as a way to pander to fearful constituents. Donald Trump, the leading presidential candidate in the Republican Party, called for banning foreign Muslims from travel to the U.S. and he wanted to require Muslims to wear identifying badges — which brought to mind the yellow stars worn by Jews under Hitler.
“People like that are really seizing on the concept of Islamophobia to get people on their side,” she said. “It’s based on an event or several events that have happened, terroristic acts committed by people who happen to be Muslim or come from a Middle Eastern country. I think it’s taking something and distorting it to gain more voters.”
Abou-kassem said her interpretation of Islam is selective and focused on the spiritual rather than the dogmatic.
“I’ve kind of said, ‘OK, I’m going to follow the basic tenets as best I can and try to live my life as a good person.’ ”