According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than 5 million people have fled Syria since 2011. By the end of 2016, only 18,000 of those refugees were resettled in the United States. Dalya Zeno, now 18 years old, and her mother, Rudayna, are two of that number. They left Aleppo, Syria, in 2012 to escape the increasingly violent Syrian Civil War, and have made Los Angeles their home ever since.
Dalya is now the subject of a new documentary, “Dalya’s Other Country,” directed by Julie Meltzer and premiering on PBS’s “POV.” The film follows Dalya’s cultivation of a distinctly Californian teen lifestyle. She plays sports (track, basketball and soccer) and has a tightknit group of girlfriends. Her cell phone is always in hand and her makeup application skills are top notch. But she’s also the only Muslim, let alone hijabi, at her all-girls Catholic high school.
Dalya’s relationship with her hijab features prominently in the film. Her father, Mohamed Hassan, comes to visit from Turkey, where he lives, and we learn how important it was to him that Dalya continue wearing the hijab upon moving to the U.S. As the 2016 election approaches and candidate Donald Trump begins talking about a Muslim ban, Dalya and her mother disagree about Rudayna’s decision to cover her hijab with a hat when driving to and from school.
Rudayna is going through an identity evolution of her own. Before moving to the United States, she divorced Mohamed after he took on a second wife without her permission. Dalya and Rudayna are both developing their own Islamic feminist identity throughout the film in a thoughtful, yet unapologetic way that is welcome for its accurate portrayal of feminism within a religion whose treatment of womanhood is often misunderstood.
“Dalya’s Other Country” documents the ground-shift of American culture through the life of one remarkable teenage girl. I interviewed Dalya ahead of the film’s release to talk about coming of age in America, her faith journey and why she plans to return to Syria one day.
Rewire: At the time you and your mother left Syria, you were only 13 years old. What did you think about your mother’s decision to move to the United States? Do you think you would have made the same decision if you were in her shoes?
Dalya Zeno: Yes, I would have definitely made the same decision. As a mother she wanted me to be safe. At the time that we left Syria, like many Syrians, we thought we might be coming back. We didn’t know for sure that we would be moving to the U.S.
Rewire: As a Muslim studying at an all-girl Catholic school, what—if anything—surprised you about your classmates?
DZ: I had not been exposed to Catholic school previously so I had very few preconceptions. I found the experience of going to church interesting and beautiful in many ways. It was interesting to me because there were so many similarities that with Islam – all the stories like Caine and Abel, Adam and Eve are similar to the stories that we learn in Islam.
Rewire: Do you think your transition into American life would have been the same had you instead enrolled in public school?
DZ: If I had gone to public school it would have been very different. I think if I had gone to public school I would not have adjusted as fast and I probably would be less religious now.
Rewire: At one point in the film, your mother says she is American, not a refugee. Do you consider “refugee” an aspect of your identity in America? Why or why not?
DZ: We were forced to leave Syria because of the war, but we were lucky to have citizenship. My mom had lived here before, so our position is different from other refugees who come here seeking safety and citizenship. Maybe because we had citizenship I don’t think a lot about how I define myself.
Rewire: How have you reconciled your Islamic faith with your progressive social values (your support of gay rights and personal identity as a feminist, for example)?
DZ: I am surrounded by some Muslims who share the same values as I do so that makes it easier for me to reconcile. If I had stayed in Syria I probably would not be thinking about these ideas. I am a more open-minded person from living here and going to the school I went to.
Because L.A. is so diverse, I also encounter people from all over the world here. This would not have been my experience in Syria.
Rewire: How has your feminist viewpoint affected your relationship with your dad and your outlook on your parents’ marriage?
DZ: I love my dad even though there are things that we don’t fully see eye to eye on. I respect his opinion and he respects mine. As a 13-year old reconciling with my parent’s divorce was really hard for me. However, over the years I have come to accept it and think that it may be better for them to live apart.
Rewire: In the film, your father says he won’t move to the U.S. because he can’t feel his religion here. What has your personal faith journey entailed since moving to California?
DZ: Being in a Catholic school environment helped me to maintain my faith and maybe even make it stronger. I do feel my religion here–of course in a different way then when I was in Syria. Honestly, in some ways, I feel my faith here even more, because I am not surrounded by Muslims. I’m always reminded of who I am and where I come from.
Rewire: There are a lot of parallels throughout the film between your life and your mom’s (like a pursuit of higher education and a personal reckoning with the hijab). In what ways do you think you and your mom are similar? What do you admire about her most?
DZ: We went through the same hardships to adjust to life here. We both have the goal to pursue higher education. Her dedication to her education is one of the things that I admire most about my mom; she is so persistent and ambitious in reaching her goal. My mom is my role model–she got into UCLA!
Rewire: How did your own first year of college go? What subjects are you studying?
DZ: My first year of college went well. It took me time to adjust, but I made a lot of friends. I’m taking my general-ed classes right now, next year I will start with studying architecture.
Rewire: Filming of “Dalya’s Other Country” wrapped prior to the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s presidential win. If the cameras had still been rolling on your life at that time, what would we have seen?
DZ: The cameras were rolling, but Julia decided not to include election day in the film! The last scene that we see in the film during the credits is me at the LAX protest against the Muslim travel ban. This is where I have ended up, I’m against Trump’s travel ban and this the position that I’m taking.
Rewire: Have you felt compelled to get involved in politics in any other way? Would you ever consider running for office yourself?
DZ: I am not interested in running for office but I am interested in pursuing a degree in architecture and returning to Syria to help re-build. That is my dream.
“Dalya’s Other Country” premieres on “POV” on Monday, June 26. Watch the documentary online at PBS.org.
Kaylen Ralph is the co-founder, editorial development director and brand director of The Riveter Magazine, a longform women’s lifestyle magazine in print and online. She works as a personal stylist for Anthropologie. Follow her on Instagram @kaylenralph for books and fashion. You can also find her on Twitter at @kaylenralph.