Rami Sebei wrestles under the name Sami Zayn in the WWE. He is one of the company's biggest stars, and he is also a Syrian Muslim who speaks Arabic fluently. Perhaps in another time and place, Sebei's background would force him to be a villainous character paired up against an American hero, causing thousands of fans in arenas across the country to boo him and chant, "U-S-A!"
But times have certainly changed. Sebei, who was born and raised in Montreal, essentially plays a caricature version of himself in the ring, without allowing his race, religion or outside stereotypes define him in the eyes of others.
While Sebei doesn't portray a Middle Eastern stereotype in the WWE, he's been unafraid to share his feelings on President Donald Trump's efforts to temporarily ban travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations -- including Syria, where his parents immigrated from.
He tweeted, "I can't articulate how truly disgusted I am right now," following Trump's signing of an executive order to that effect. Sebei has continued to post messages of hope and anguish over the last few weeks. "The fear, hatred & division sold to us is a much bigger problem than our struggling brothers and sisters are. CHOOSE an open heart over anger."
"It's definitely a sensitive topic to discuss, but I have felt since I signed with the WWE I was in a unique position to reestablish how Arabs were perceived in the WWE and western media," Sebei told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "Ever since I was a kid and growing up and watching things like the 'Naked Gun' movies, there was always this stereotype about how Arabs were perceived and portrayed. I've never watched those Arab villains in the movie and felt like that was me. They were nothing like me, and now I get to just be me -- and hopefully being me strikes a chord with a lot of young Arabs and non-Arabs, honestly. We're really not all that different."
Sebei understands that his platform as a WWE performer affords him the opportunity to reach millions on television, as well as thousands on social media. He has more than 700,000 Twitter followers.
"The impact this company has overseas is overwhelming at times, but it's like the old expression: 'With great power comes great responsibility,'" Sebei said. "With a platform that big, and with an opportunity this big, whether you want to be a role model or not, this puts you in a position where you have to be your best; it's really your duty to be the best that you can be."
Amid the current chaos of the early days of the Trump administration, Sebei is in a unique position to comment on immigration that targets the Arab world. While he's not currently personally affected by the ban, as he was born in Canada and does not hold dual citizenship with an affected country, Sebei grew up with the culture and the religion in his native Montreal. After the recent attack on a Quebec City mosque that left six worshipers dead, Sebei once again took to social media to convey his grief.
My heart is with the Muslims of Quebec.
Mon coeur est avec les musulmans du Québec.
قلبي مع المسلمين في كيبيك.
- Sami Zayn (@iLikeSamiZayn) January 30, 2017
While Sebei has permanent resident status in the United States, where he's performed regularly as a wrestler for more than 10 years, as the political landscape continues to shape itself in this country, Sebei is unsure as to when, or if, he'll ultimately seek citizenship in this country.
"I'm a Canadian citizen but I do have a green card," Sebei said. "I would consider U.S. citizenship down the road, but we'll have to see how the political sphere unravels in the next few weeks, and few years."
For now, at least during work hours, Sebei is working to do what he can within the fictional confines of the WWE, with television shows and live events that reach more than 180 countries, in 25 different languages. Characters in the world of professional wrestling change all the time, but Sebei is hopeful that the way Arabs are perceived in the United States and around the world will change -- and that he can be a part of that change by simply being himself in the WWE, and not some outdated stereotype of what an Arab should be.
"I think it's important for youngsters from all walks of life to have some sort of representative that they can look up to and aspire to be and let them know there's a chance for anybody from any background," Sebei said. "That's the spirit of America, right? Anybody from any background can make it anywhere with enough hard work. I think the more people from all walks of life who speak up and the more diverse success stories we have, the better that is for our youngsters growing up, knowing they can attain those same goals just like anybody else."