‘Dalya’s Other Country’ aims to squash stereotypes about Syrian refugees

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Starting high school in a new town is daunting for anyone. New friends, teachers and buildings makes the transition evermore anxiety-inducing. The experience was no different for Dalya Zeno, now 18, when she first moved here from her war-torn home in Syria four years ago. 

“One night we were sleeping and we started hearing bombs and shootings in front of our house and that started becoming more and more of a usual thing, ” Dalya Zeno said. “Kidnappings of kids started happening and my parents couldn’t let me stay there anymore and wanted me to come here so that it would be more safe for me so that’s how it all started.”

When the war broke out in 2011, filmmaker Julia Meltzer began her search for a story about someone from Aleppo, Syria.

“I had spent time in Aleppo and really loved it and wanted to have some connection to the place and I thought one way for me to kind of contribute something would be to tell a story of someone who is coming from Aleppo to the United States,” Meltzer said.

Meltzer had known that her fellow filmmaking colleague Mustafa Zeno had family that recently resettled in L.A. but thought filming them might be “too close to home.”

“The more that I thought about it, the more we talked about it, I thought ‘oh it could be interesting’ because I knew that Dalya was enrolled in an all-girls Catholic school and just that premise in itself (the only Muslim in an all-girls Catholic school), I thought would potentially yield some interesting story lines,” said Meltzer.

The only Muslim at an all-girls Catholic school

It was just that storyline that drew us to Dalya. As the only Muslim and hijab-wearing girl to go to Holy Family High School, an all-girl Catholic high school, Zeno faced eye-opening and unique challenges.

“Being in a faith-based school really helped [Dalya] strengthen her own practice of Islam.”

“At the beginning it was very awkward for me. I stood out, people were like ‘why does she wear that,’ but throughout a long time we became like family,” Zeno said. “It allowed me to be more open-minded. I learned so much about someone else’s religion.”

Meltzer weighed in, “being in a faith-based school really helped [Dalya] strengthen her own practice of Islam.”

Filming in a high school with minors was difficult, Meltzer admits, but not as difficult as filming a teenager in her formative years.

“I think there are things you’re going through as a teenager that you don’t necessarily always want to reveal,” Meltzer said. “And also I think that Dalya was very much in the midst of her life and didn’t always think about ‘okay, what does Julia need to know about what’s going on in my life.’”

For Dalya, she described the filming process in one word: awkward. 

“People were asking me why is she filming you and it was just so much pressure and I felt so awkward. Like thanks, no thanks,” Zeno said. 

33794275220_91168a9ef2_oLiving in Trump’s America

Filming began in 2013 and, according to Meltzer, was always supposed to end with Dalya’s high school graduation in May 2016. The recent presidential campaign and subsequent election anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, however, completely changed the swing of things. 

“Dalya turned 18 on Monday, November 7, and the election was Tuesday, November 8. And then after Trump was elected, and then in January with the travel ban, Dalya participated in that protest and then there was the pro immigration march in L.A. We shot a bunch of that just because it’s part of her story and her evolution,” Meltzer said.

“I think that had she been at a Catholic school with all white girls, it might have been more challenging.”

In my conversations with both Meltzer and Zeno, the overarching theme was diversity. Both attribute Dalya’s easy transition to an American high school to the diversity of the student body.

“She was with students from Mexico, from Central America, from the Philippines, Korea and I think that because she was just one person in a sea of people from other places that it was really easy for her to be accepted and that was really interesting to me,” Meltzer said. “I think that had she been at a Catholic school with all white girls, it might have been more challenging.”

Dalya admits that the diversity of her classmates and friends helped stem ideas she doesn’t believe she would’ve learned in Syria. 

“Diversity was a huge thing that taught me so much. Because you know in Syria, everyone was just Syrian, it isn’t really diverse,” Zeno said. “I learned a lot of ideas like feminism and rights of others like the LGBT community for example.”

So even if you hate it, I still wrap my hijab

Right before resettling in Los Angeles, a conflicted Zeno put on a hijab in hopes of making her family happy. In her op-ed for Teen Vogue, Zeno wrote about her experience with hijab and how her reasons for wearing hijab have drastically changed since moving to the United States, “I’ve come to understand that there is not one reason for wearing the hijab. There are no set rules that every woman must follow, it always depends on each woman’s personal experience. It took me four years to understand what the hijab means to me.”

“Especially after Trump’s election, I’ve never been prouder of wearing hijab. It really shows that ‘I am Muslim and I am not afraid of you.’”

One scene in Dalya’s Other Country shows Dalya’s mother, Rudayna, slip on a hat on top of her hijab. “Are you trying to hide your hijab?” Dalya asks. With Islamophobia at an all-time high, being a visible Muslim provides challenges to living your daily life. Constant fear about going out in public with hijab has become the reality many Muslim women face.

Despite hate-fueled antics sprouting in different parts of the country, Dalya remains resilient. 

“Especially after Trump’s election, I’ve never been prouder of wearing hijab. It really shows that ‘I am Muslim and I am not afraid of you.’”

A classic coming of age story

Dalya’s Other Country is unique in that it details a different kind of resettling story. Meltzer notes that a majority of the films coming out of the Syrian refugee crisis tend to be war stories on crossing the Mediterranean. And while those stories are important to tell, the stories of life post-resettlement give a more intimate look at Syrians as a community rather than as victims of an unruly crisis. 

“You really have to establish relationships, be there and essentially live with people and establish trust and many of the stories coming out of Syria are more war stories and that type of journalism or filmmaking is told in a much quicker way,” Meltzer said. “I have really missed the stories about women and I hope that this film provides some of that.”

“I think that for any teenager or young person who is just like dealing with feeling different and adapting I think that the story resonates with them.”

In other ways, however, the film strongly resembles a classic coming of age story. For Dalya, moving to a new country was a major adjustment.

“When I first came here I felt like I was out of place. Again because it was so sudden, I had my life set there. I had to leave school right away like right in the middle of the school year,” Zeno said.

Dalya’s story is one that many can relate to, immigrant or not. We’ve all felt out of place at one point in our lives. Her immigrant story is one of finding yourself and adapting to changes around you.

“It’s a coming of age story,” Meltzer said. “I think that for any teenager or young person who is just like dealing with feeling different and adapting I think that the story resonates with them.”

“Refugees are just people like everybody else”

In being a part of this film, Dalya, although not a refugee, hopes to humanize refugees by showing that she is just a girl who is seeking a better life for herself and her family.

“They are just seeking refuge and a lot of people have misperceptions about Muslims or Syrians or Arabs and like that they’re terrorists. These people are fleeing terrorism, you know,” Zeno said.

With one year down at Pasadena Community College, Zeno plans on attending a four-year university to get a degree in architecture. When asked why architecture, she simply responded “to rebuild my country.”

“God, people laugh at me when I tell them my dream, but you know what? It’s my dream!” Zeno said about her dream to pursue an architecture degree. “I lived in Syria for 13 years of my life and seeing it destroyed is just totally heart breaking.”

Be unapologetically yourself

With a high pitched voice and myriad of “ummms” and “likes,” Dalya sounds 18 but her words are more attuned to a woman in her 30s. In a short amount of time, she’s had to grow up and endure life changing experiences. Through it all, she is graceful and unapologetically herself.

“Me really embracing who I am in my faith and not being afraid is what I feel made me stronger as a person.”

 

Dalya’s Other Country is currently streaming on PBS’s affiliate channel POV for 30 days. Watch here.

photos via Dustin Pearlman for American Documentary, Inc.