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‘Dalya’s Other Country’: Being a teen in LA is different when you’re coming from Aleppo




A Syrian refugee navigates her teenage years in pursuit of the American Dream.
A Syrian refugee navigates her teenage years in pursuit of the American Dream.
Journeyman Pictures (via YouTube)

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Being a teenager these days is hard enough. But add in having to flee a war-torn country while adjusting to a new place and culture and, well, that makes things even more complex.

It's an experience that's familiar to 18-year-old Dalya Zeno.

Five years ago, Dalya and her mother fled Syria and joined Dalya's brother Mustafa, who was already here in Los Angeles. Their story is surprising — not what may come to mind when you hear about the plight of Syrian refugees or migrants.

The new documentary, "Dalya's Other Country," follows the mother-daughter struggle to assimilate into an increasingly polarized country while trying to hang onto their roots.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECBh3J3sKBQ

Director Julia Meltzer set out to film in 2013 with a very specific idea in mind:

"When I started this film, I was looking for someone coming from Aleppo to Los Angeles, and I found Dalya, and I thought that it would be a good story to look at her process of adjusting to high school."

Caught between two cultures

At the age of 13, Dalya came to the U.S. to start her new life. While acclimating to the new culture and environment, the family was approached to have their lives filmed and documented, something Dalya "didn't take so seriously" at first.

The documentary was segmented into three different sections of Dalya's life, checking in almost every year during her high school career. It starts in 2013, when we see a young 15-year-old Dalya juggling identities. Just as she's starting to mold her identity, a visit from her father throws her off balance, and in a particularly revealing scene, she admits she doesn't like it in the U.S.

Flash forward to present day when, upon hearing that clip, 18 year-old Dalya laughs:

"It's funny how I came here and I didn't like it and I wanted to go back to my old life. But I never honestly knew that I would be where I am today. Like, I love my life here, and I'm thankful that I don't feel that way anymore."

Two women, parallel journeys

The documentary hits on many points: assimilation, Islamophobia, feminism. But one of the strongest themes is the relationship between Dalya and her mom, Rudayna.

Director Julia Meltzer's reason for highlighting it came about organically:

"That came about really through getting to know Rudayna... I thought, 'OK, I'm going to follow Dalya through high school. It's going to be about her high school. I'll find some friends who are around her ... And maybe it'll be about girls in Southern California in a high school, immigrant families.' I thought maybe I was searching for that.

"After I got to meet Rudayna and I learned a little bit about her story and what she had gone through and her marriage ... And then that she decided to return to college in her 50s, I thought, 'Well, that's amazing. That's a story, too.' And I thought looking at these two women, one who's coming of age, one who is ​middle-aged, and both really going through a lot of change and shift. I thought that's an interesting thing to look at those two generations and how they face those challenges, being at different ages and different points in their lives."

Additionally, the documentary explores Rudayna's struggle with loneliness as a divorced middle-aged Muslim woman trying to navigate her new independence. 

The shift

The title of the documentary is "Dalya's Other Country," which in the beginning clearly seems to refer to the United States. But slowly, as we check in with her through the years, we begin to see a shift. As of now, Dalya's heart remains here:

"In the beginning, the U.S. was my new country, my other country that I was kind of seeking refuge in. But, at this point in my life, I think Syria is now my other country. I've gotten more Americanized definitely, but life here just became my life and who I am."

"Dalya's Other Country" will kick off POV's 30th anniversary on PBS SoCal on Monday, June 26 at 9 pm.

To listen to the full interview, click the blue play button above.